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Traffic deaths keep rising in US, but distracted driving fatalities fall

WASHINGTON — Traffic fatalities in the U.S. jumped for the second-straight year in 2016 despite a dip in crash deaths linked to distracted driving, according to data released by federal highway safety regulators.

Some 37,461 people died in vehicle collisions in 2016, the highest annual tally since 2007, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures. The 5.6 percent rise in traffic deaths last year came after an 8.4 percent spike in 2015, which was the largest annual increase since the mid-1960s.

Fatalities from distracted drivers, such as those texting, fell 2.2 percent last year, NHTSA reported Friday. Deaths linked to other risky behaviors such as speeding, drunken driving and not wearing seat belts contributed to an overall gain in fatalities, the agency said. Drunken driving was blamed for the most deaths.

The agency “continues to promote vehicle technologies that hold the potential to reduce the number of crashes and save thousands of lives every year,” it said in a statement. They “may eventually help reduce or eliminate human error and the mistakes that drivers make behind the wheel.”

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Another increase in the number of miles driven by American motorists last year helps explain some but not all of the increase in crash deaths. Total vehicle miles traveled increased 2.2 percent last year while the fatality rate grew 2.6 percent to 1.18 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the agency. Miles driven gained 2.3 percent in 2015.

Regulators have sounded the alarm about the rising safety risks on the roads and highways, which comes after a downward trend for the last decade. The gains have also fueled interest on Capitol Hill in self-driving vehicles as a way to curb deadly crashes, with lawmakers advancing legislation to speed autonomous vehicle deployment.

NHTSA also found that pedestrian, motorcyclist and bicyclist deaths also rose in 2016. Non-vehicle occupants accounted for nearly a third of all crash fatalities last year, up from roughly 1 in 4 traffic deaths in 2007.

(With assistance from Lisa Du .)

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