After years of steady declines, driving deaths in Arizona have risen sharply this year, mirroring a “troubling” national trend in which lower gas prices and more drivers are translating into more fatalities.
The latest numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 32,675 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2014, and 770 of those were in Arizona.
But the NHTSA report, released Tuesday, also said that traffic deaths had risen 8.1 percent nationally through the first half of this year. And Arizona officials said the state had already recorded 596 fatalities through the first eight months of the year, just under 80 percent of the total from 2014.
“Commonly we see more driving – and therefore more lives lost – as the economy grows and gas prices fall,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind during a conference call to release the numbers.
That was echoed by Alberto Gutier, the director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, who attributes the increased fatalities to “more travel, lower gas prices and people in a hurry.”
“I don’t know what the big hurry is to get to places,” Gutier said.
The new numbers reverse years of general improvement in roadway deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Nationally, deaths fell 25 percent from 2005 to 2014, while Arizona deaths had hovered around 800 in recent years after hitting an all-time high of 1,301 in 2006.
Arizona AAA spokeswoman Valerie Vinyard said one reason for the improvements in recent years could be the fact that cars are “a lot safer nowadays.” But while the relatively low number of fatalities in 2014 was a good sign, there were still too many, she said, adding that the increase in 2015 points out the need for more to be done.
“We need to really limit distractions and recognize how important it is to be a good defensive driver and always be alert,” said Vinyard, noting that Arizona does not have mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists and is one of just a handful of states without a statewide ban on texting and driving.
She said legislators need to take action on those “common sense” issues.
“Distracted driving is still a huge problem in Arizona ? (and) the rest of the country,” Vinyard said. “Even looking down for two seconds doubles your chance of having a crash.”
Gutier cites three distinct reasons for high numbers of traffic fatalities: speeding and aggressive driving, failure to use seatbelts, and impaired driving due to alcohol, marijuana and other illicit and prescription drugs.
With an eye toward impaired drivers and the holiday, Arizona AAA is bringing back its Tipsy Tow service, which allows up to 10 miles of free towing for drunken drivers between 6 p.m. Wednesday and 6 a.m. Thursday, one of the biggest drinking nights of the year.
And with many more people hitting the road for Thanksgiving holiday travel, officials urged caution and patience.
“Leave early, be patient, you’ll eventually get there,” Vinyard said. She added that it’s important to “make sure your car is road-ready,” noting that Arizona’s sharp temperature swings – 80-degree days can be coupled with 30-degree nights – affect tire pressure.
But Rosekind said there is only so much individual drivers can do, and called on states to enact tougher driving safety laws.
“It really is time for our nation to get serious about the epidemic of death that is on our roadways,” he said.