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Traffic deaths up 19 percent in North Carolina

One person was killed in a single-vehicle crash near uptown Charlotte in the early morning June 22. The accident happened just after 4 a.m. on the Interstate-77 ramp to Morehead Street.
One person was killed in a single-vehicle crash near uptown Charlotte in the early morning June 22. The accident happened just after 4 a.m. on the Interstate-77 ramp to Morehead Street. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Traffic deaths are up 19 percent in North Carolina so far this year, mirroring a troubling national trend, according to data from the National Safety Council.

Accidents are increasing in the Charlotte area as well, reaching levels not seen since before the 2009 recession, the Charlotte Department of Transportation says.

A confluence of factors is to blame: Plunging gas prices are sending more people out on the roads and for longer trips. The steadily improving economy is having a similar effect. And distracted driving continues to be an intransigent problem.

“This could be one of those years where we see a sizable increase in fatality numbers,” said David Harkey, director of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

Across the state, 634 people were killed in motor vehicle wrecks in the first six months of 2015, compared with 531 the year before. In South Carolina, fatal accidents have increased even more: up 21 percent to 445.

Both states showed larger increases in deadly crashes than the nation as a whole. Across the U.S., about 19,000 people died through June, up 14 percent over 2014.

Part of the blame can be attributed to lower gas prices and an improving economy encouraging more people to spend more time on the road, National Safety Council CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman said. Low gas prices also tend to bring out drivers more prone to crash, like teen drivers.

North Carolina also has seen steady population growth.

“We’re certainly seeing a whole lot more people and a lot more miles traveled,” said Christopher Oliver, a traffic safety specialist with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

But Hersman said the increase also likely has to do with increasing number of distractions – like cellphones – and rising speed limits.

“As a safety professional, it’s not just disappointing but heartbreaking to see the numbers trending in the wrong direction,” she said.

In Charlotte

Charlotte has seen an uptick in collisions on its streets, as well. Fatal crashes, however, actually decreased in 2014.

The city recorded more than 23,000 collisions in the city in 2014, up 9 percent from the year before and approaching pre-recession levels, according to CDOT data. The department cited increased time on the roads and population growth. The numbers do not include wrecks on interstates like I-77 or I-85 or in private parking lots.

Fatal collisions in the city, however, were down 10 percent last year, to 39. Less than 1 percent of wrecks on city streets result in a death, the city’s transportation department says.

The number of accidents in Charlotte plummeted in 2009, and remained low for three years after that. The number of wrecks in 2013 and 2014 were similar to those in 2007 and 2008.

Historically safer

Despite the increase in traffic deaths this year nationally and in North Carolina, Harkey of the Highway Safety Research Center said the historical trend is toward safer roads.

He said year-to-year numbers can be misleading and subject to natural variation. Several decades ago, he said, more than 50,000 people were killed each year on the roadways. For the past few years, the number has been in the mid-30,000s. He said he did not quibble with the National Safety Council’s numbers, but stressed the importance of looking at the overall trend.

“Vehicles get safer, the way we design roadways gets safer,” Harkey said. “Those numbers in general, they get better.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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