WASHINGTON -- U.S. traffic deaths rose a projected 9% in the first half of this year, compared with the same period a year ago, for the largest increase since 1975, as an improved economy led motorists to drive more.
The increase comes after road fatalities dropped last year to their lowest level in more than six decades.
An estimated 16,290 people died in crashes between January and June, up from 14,950 for the first half of 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Safety experts say the increase is likely due to an improved economy, with motorists driving about 15.6 billion more miles -- a 1.1% increase -- during the first half of this year.
AAA said it wondered whether deferred road maintenance was also a factor.
Congress recently approved new highway legislation but struggled to maintain funding for road projects because more fuel-efficient cars have translated into less money from the federal gasoline tax.
Last year’s national decline in traffic fatalities -- to 32,310 -- came as motorists drove less. The 2011 fatality rate was projected to decline to 1.09 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
The fatality rate for the first six months of 2012 is estimated to increase to 1.12 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
“It’s extremely difficult to maintain steady decreases over time,” said Barbara L. Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Assn., calling the increase “not unexpected.”
The federal traffic safety agency said it was too soon to speculate on the causes for the projected increase, but noted that the six-month figure for this year is still down 27% from the recent high of 20,500 traffic deaths recorded during the first half of 2006.
The previous highest increase during the first half of a year was the 6.4% increase in fatalities reported in the first half of 1979, compared with the same period a year before, the agency reported.