The one positive in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's just-released report tallying the final traffic-fatality figures for 2016 is that the percentage increase over the previous year wasn't as high as projected. But that's cold comfort considering the 37,461 deaths that occurred on U.S. roadways last year were overwhelmingly caused by poor choices by drivers.
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"NHSTA found that distracted driving and drowsy driving fatalities declined, while deaths related to other reckless behaviors — including speeding, alcohol impairment and not wearing seat belts — continued to increase," NHTSA said in a statement.
All told, the death toll translated to a 5.6 percent rise in traffic fatalities compared with 2015. While earlier projections were shaping up for a significantly worse 8 percent increase, driving deaths from 2014 to 2015 had already seen a 7.2 percent spike, which was the largest in half a century — so the lower figure isn't exactly cause for celebration.
The top five causes of driving deaths in 2016, followed by the number of victims for each, were:
5. Drowsy driving; 803 deaths
4. Distracted driving; 3,450
3. Speeding; 10,111
2. Not wearing a seat belt; 10,428
1. Drunken driving; 10,497
Another alarming trend revealed in the NHTSA report is the rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths, which combined accounted for a third of traffic deaths in 2016. The Governors Highway Safety Association previously estimated an 11 percent increase in pedestrian deaths for the first half of 2016, following a 22 percent increase from 2014 to 2015.
The final driving-related death toll for walkers was 5,987, a 9 percent spike and the highest number since 1990, while 840 bicyclists were killed, the highest in 25 years. Motorcyclists saw a 5.1 percent increase in fatalities, with 5,286 deaths.
While the upticks in fatalities are accompanied by an increase in total miles driven by American motorists last year, the death rate is outpacing the mileage increase, with 2.2 percent more vehicle miles traveled versus 2.6 percent more deaths per 100 million miles.