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Traffic fatalities down 4.2% in first half of 2013

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Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor/ File

(Read caption) Commuters take to the crowded LA freeways after work. VMT and traffic fatalities are on the decline this year, NHTSA data shows.

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Highway fatalities have been on the decline in the U.S., reaching an all-time low in 2011. Unfortunately, that trend reversed course last year: when all the dust from 2012 has settled, analysts expect to see an increase in roadway deaths of 8.2 percent, which is significantly higher than initial estimates (though not quite the nine percent first feared). It's the first uptick America has seen in six years.

That's the bad news. The good news is that although official numbers for 2012 probably won't be released until December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already forecasting figures for 2013. If NHTSA's predictions are correct, they'll bring the U.S. fatality rate back to near-historic lows.

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In the first six months of 2013, 15,470 people died on America's roadways -- slightly more than the 14,924 fatalities recorded in the first six months of 2011, but fewer than the 16,150estimated for the same period in 2012. 

And it's not just total fatalities that are dropping: the fatality rate has fallen in 2013, too. In 2011, the number of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tied 2010's all-time low of1.04. For 2012, that number is expected to climb to 1.10, but estimates for 2013 see a decrease to around 1.06. Yes, that's higher than 2010 and 2011, but it's still significantly lower than most previous years: in 2009, for example, the figure was 1.13, and in 2005, 1.37.

The drop in the fatality rate is made even more remarkable by the fact that Americans are driving less. If VMT were climbing and the number of fatalities stayed about the same, we'd expect to see fatality rates fall, since all those extra miles would dilute the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled. To see the fatality rate fall at the same time that VMT is falling? That's unexpected. 

At this very early stage in the data collection and analysis, NHTSA doesn't offer any suggestions for 2013's decline. Some of the biggest trouble spots in previous years have involved big rig collisions, accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists, and distracted driving. Any dip in the fatality rate would seem to stem from improvements on one or more of those fronts.

You can check out charts of NHTSA's preliminary data in this PDF.

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