WASHINGTON — Traffic fatalities rose 5.6 percent last year, with the biggest spikes in pedestrian and motorcyclist deaths, the government said Friday.
There were 37,461 people killed on U.S. roads in 2016 as Americans continue to drive more, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. That’s the highest number of deaths since 2007.
The fatality rate was 1.18 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a 2.6 percent increase from the previous year.
Traffic deaths have been increasing since late 2014, as gas prices have fallen and people started driving more. In 2016, the total number of miles driven in the U.S. rose 2.2 percent.
Last year’s increase in deaths follows an 8.4 percent surge in deaths in 2015. The last time the U.S. had similar back-to-back increases of that magnitude was more than five decades ago.
Pedestrian deaths last year hit their highest level since 1990, with 5,987 people killed. That figure represents a 9 percent increase from the previous year.
Motorcyclist deaths were up 5.1 percent, reaching their highest level — 5,286 killed — since 2008.
Together, they accounted for more than a third of the increase in fatalities compared with 2015.
Pedestrians “are unprotected and, in most cases, outnumbered,” said Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council.
“We must not forget that the risks we are all facing extend to the sidewalks, too,” she said. “Everyone deserves safe passage, and these numbers are yet another indication that we must do more to keep each other safe.”
Bicycle deaths increased only slightly, 1.3 percent, but were at their highest number — 840 killed — since 1991.
Deaths related to distracted and drowsy driving declined. Those declines were more than offset by other dangerous behaviors, including speeding, alcohol impairment and not wearing seat belts, the safety administration said.
Data on fatalities attributed to distracted or drowsy driving have limitations. The information is drawn from police reports, but it’s not always obvious to police if a driver was distracted or fell asleep. Also, if it’s clear that a driver was at fault in a crash, police may not investigate further to determine if the driver was distracted or drowsy.
Traffic deaths declined significantly during the Great Recession and during the economic recovery as Americans cut back on their driving. Increased seat belt use, reductions in alcohol impairment, and improved auto safety equipment like air bags and electronic stability control also contributed to the decline.
The large increases in fatalities of 2015 and 2016 eliminated more than a third of the progress over the past decade in reducing the number of people killed on the roads each year.