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With Rising Number of Highway Deaths, California Bucks National Trend

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Wreckage from a collision involving a bus and semi in the Sacramento Valley town of Orland. The Interstate 5 crash killed 10 people and injured 38. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Federal highway safety data released Tuesday show the traffic death toll in California continues to trend upward even as the number of people who die on roads nationwide holds steady.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 32,675 people -- vehicle drivers, their passengers, pedestrians and cyclists -- died in collisions in 2014. On the one hand, that's terrible, the equivalent of erasing the entire population of Menlo Park in the course of a year.

Another 2.3 million people were injured in crashes nationwide -- equal to the combined population of San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland.

On the other hand, the 2014 death toll was down 44 deaths, or 0.1 percent of the total, from the year before. That's part of a long-term trend that has seen the number of yearly road deaths decline from more than 50,000, a level exceeded 11 times between the mid-1960s and early '80s, to a modern low of 32,479 in 2011.

NHTSA released a second set of statistics that the agency said is cause for concern: Preliminary data for the first six months of 2015 that show an 8.1 percent jump in deaths compared with the same period in 2014.


The federal safety agency said California's death toll in motor-vehicle collisions last year was 3,074. That's up 2.5 percent from the 2013 toll of 3,000 and was the fourth year in a row that vehicle-related fatalities have increased in the state. Overall, vehicle-involved fatalities in California have risen 13.2 percent since hitting a modern low of 2,715 in 2010.

California's Highway Death Toll

Year Deaths
2014 3,074
2013 3,000
2012 2,857
2011 2,791
2010 2,715
2009 2,816
2008 3,434
2007 3,974
2006 4,236
2005 4,329

The state's rate of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a common measuring stick for traffic statistics, is rising, too, though it remains below the national rate. In 2013, the most recent year for which that data is available, the U.S. rate was 1.09 deaths per 100 million VMT; California's rate was 0.94.

There's no definitive answer for why California's death toll is rising, says Chris Cochrane of the state Office of Traffic Safety. But he says one likely factor is the rise and fall and rise of the state's economy.

In 2005, at the height of the boom/bubble that preceded the recession, the death toll from vehicle collisions stood at 4,329. The death toll declined throughout the ensuing recession. The 2010 low point of 2,715 -- a decline of 37.2 percent over five years -- coincided with the nadir of the state's economy.

"Every time there's been a recession in California, there's been a decline in roadway fatalities," Cochrane said. "It was the same this time. But there was a bigger recession, and a bigger decline in fatalities."

Cochrane added that analysts don't have enough data to tell how much of the increase in fatalities might be due to drivers' use of smartphones.

"Everybody 'knows' -- in quotes --that it's a huge problem," Cochrane said, with some investigators and analysts estimating that personal electronic devices are involved in 10 percent to 20 percent of crashes.

"It's extremely hard to quantify because of the nature of the act itself," he says. "If someone's been drinking, you can measure that in their blood. If they've been speeding, there's evidence of that. It's harder to pin it on a cellphone," he said, unless there's a witness to a crash or a survivor who volunteers that information.

The federal statistics released Tuesday did not break out the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed in California in collisions with motor vehicles in 2014. Nationwide, a total of 4,884 pedestrians and 726 cyclists lost their lives in such crashes.

That compares to 4,735 pedestrians and 741 cyclists killed in vehicle crashes in 2013. The toll in California that year was 701 pedestrians and 141 cyclists.

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