By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON (AP) — Traffic deaths were up 9 percent in the first six months of this year from the same period last year, continuing a surge in deaths that began two years ago when the economy started improving and travel picked up, according to preliminary estimates released Tuesday by the National Safety Council.
Among states, Wisconsin saw a relatively large increase. Deaths on Wisconsin roads have been up by 29 percent since late 2014.
Looking at the start of the year through July 31 – the Wisconsin Department of Transportation reported that 340 people had died on Wisconsin roads so far in 2016. WisDOT found that 60 people died in July alone, making it the deadliest month so far this year for road travelers.
That figure for July was also 21 deaths higher than the comparable number for July 2015 and was six higher than the average figure for the past five Julys.
Yet, despite the increase in deaths, July this year was the eighth safest July on Wisconsin roads going back to World War II. The safest was July 2015, when only 39 deaths were recorded.
Nationally, an estimated 19,100 people were killed on U.S. roads from January through June this year, said the National Safety council, a congressionally chartered nonprofit group that gets its data from state authorities. That’s 18 percent more than two years ago at the six-month mark. About 2.2 million people also were seriously injured in the first half of this year.
The council estimated the cost of these deaths and injuries came to about $205 billion.
At this rate, the number of deaths is on pace to exceed 40,000 this year for the first time in nine years, the council said. That prospect comes on the heels of what was already one of the most deadly years in recent history.
More than 35,000 people were killed on U.S. roads 2015, making it the deadliest year for road travelers since 2008, when more than 37,000 people were killed.
U.S. drivers also put in a record 1.58 trillion miles on the road in the first half of this year, a 3.3 percent increase from the same period of 2015, the Federal Highway Administration reported this week.
Besides Wisconsin, the states with the biggest increases since the upward trend began in late 2014 are: Vermont, which up 82 percent; Oregon, 70 percent; New Hampshire, 61 percent; Idaho, 46 percent; Florida, 43 percent; Iowa, 37 percent; Georgia, 34 percent; Indiana, 33 percent; and California, 31 percent.
“While many factors likely contributed to the fatality increase, a stronger economy and lower unemployment rates are at the core of the trend,” the council said in a statement. Another likely factor: Average gas prices for the first six months of this year were 16 percent lower than in the same period of 2015.
The council also predicts that 438 people will be killed on U.S. roads over the three-day Labor Day weekend that begins Sept. 2, which would make it the deadliest Labor Day weekend since 2008.
Historical data show that after peaking in the 1970s, traffic deaths have generally trended downward, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Large dips in deaths have corresponded to shocks to the economy — the oil embargo of the mid-1970s, the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s and the more recent downturn that began in late 2007 with the failure of the U.S. housing market.
Dan Shaw of The Daily Reporter contributed to this story