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Experts blame driver behavior for spike in road deaths across U.S.

Some 26,000 people were killed on U.S. roads during the first nine months of 2015.
Some 26,000 people were killed on U.S. roads during the first nine months of 2015. Star-Telegram

Alarmed by a sudden and dramatic increase in road deaths, safety officials are huddling in Fort Worth this week to work on ways to improve driver behavior.

Exactly 26,000 people were killed on U.S. roads during the first nine months of 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s 9.3 percent more than the 23,796 people killed during the same period a year earlier.

“That’s really scary,” Mark Rosekind, the agency’s administrator, said Tuesday during a summit in Fort Worth. “We have actually cut fatalities 50 percent since 2000, but if (the more recent trend continues) we will have lost half our progress. So we’ve got to do something.”

Rosekind and about 300 others gathered for the fifth in a series of regional summits being held across the U.S. The idea is to draw attention to the surprising spike in road deaths, and encourage governments and businesses to do more to promote safe driving.

Mainly, safety experts aim to reinforce the message that alcohol impairment and the use of mobile devices while driving are extremely common causes of injuries and fatal crashes.

“Things aren’t changing. It seems like things are backsliding,” said Todd Clement, a Dallas lawyer who often represents people injured in car wrecks. Clement said major employers can do more by requiring employees to engage in safer driving, including setting an example themselves by refusing to use a phone while driving, or drink alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

“It’s a cultural change,” he said.

94 Percent of fatal crashes involving human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Human error

In all, human error is a factor in about 94 percent of fatal crashes, Rosekind said during a break in the summit discussion.

“It’s an error. You were looking the wrong way or chose not to use a seat belt or chose to drive after having something to drink,” Rosekind said.

The federal agency is also aggressively pushing auto manufacturers to offer safety features such as backup cameras and emergency braking as standard equipment. The agency also supports tougher laws against drunk driving.

Texas, for example, is one of the last states in the U.S. that still doesn’t ban texting while driving.

Things aren’t changing. It seems like things are backsliding.

Personal injury lawyer Todd Clement

But while waiting for carmakers and politicians to take action, safety officials say they can get quicker results by more actively punishing offenders with police action, or shaming them with anti-drunk driving and anti-texting campaigns.

“We have to keep doing all the stuff we know works,” Rosekind said.

Fast-moving trends

Among the business executives addressing the summit at the Hilton hotel in downtown Fort Worth was Fred Maldonado Jr., vice president for external and legislative affairs for AT&T.

Maldonado noted that while Texas’ elected leaders debate the dangers of texting while driving, technology has added other potentially distracting activities such as use of Snapchat, a relatively new messaging and video-sharing service popular among teen-agers and young adults.

“Smartphone use while driving has grown beyond texting,” he said. “It’s now social media, taking selfies and chatting.”

From a law enforcement perspective, harsh punishment can reduce instances of distracted and especially alcohol-impaired driving, but only if it is handed out consistently, panelist Kevin Knight, deputy director of the Institute of Behavioral Research at Texas Christian University, told summit attendees.

“If you are going to involve punishment, make sure the punishment is quick and … make sure the person knows there is no doubt there is going to be a response,” he said.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson