WASHINGTON (AP) — Traffic deaths were up 14 percent nationally in the first six months of this year and injuries were up by a third, according to data gathered by the National Safety Council.
An improved economy and low gas prices have encouraged Americans to put a record number of miles on the road, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president of the council. But, she said, that's not the whole explanation for the increase in deaths and injuries.
All told, nearly 19,000 people across the country lost their lives in traffic accidents through June, and the tally doesn't include two of the historically highest months for traffic deaths, July and August, said the council, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to promote safety.
If the trend continues, traffic deaths this year could exceed 40,000 for the first time since 2007, when there were nearly 44,000 deaths, Hersman said in an interview. The increases began in the last quarter of 2014 and have been recorded consistently through each month of this year, Hersman said.
"As a safety professional, it's not just disappointing but heartbreaking to see the numbers trending in the wrong direction," she said.
Take a look at the history of traffic lights:
History of Traffic Lights
Traffic deaths up sharply in first 6 months of this year
NBC STUDIOS: HOLLYWOOD RADIO CITY 1938 -- Pictured: Traffic Light outside of NBC's Hollywood Radio City at Sunset and Vine in 1938 (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Installation of traffic lights that can be operated by pedestrians.
(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
16th February 1932: A woman presses the button on a new set of traffic lights in Croydon, Surrey, to signal cars to stop at the pedestrian crossing. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Policeman is setting up a traffic lights- 1937.
(Photo by Herbert Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
MAR 24 1961, MAR 25 1961; Into the Jungle; Which way would you turn, if faced by a jumble of conflicting signs like this? Chances are you'd turn in your driver's license. Fact is, Denver Post photographer Lowell Georgia played a trick with his camera to get this version of the traffic signs and lights along 14th St., looking west from Court PI. His 400-millimeter lens jams up the intersection from Court to Larimer St. turning the signs into a hopeless maze.; (Photo By Lowell Georgia/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
1969: Traffic lights and a drive-in cleaners in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)
DEC 1 1972, DEC 2 1972; Traffic Control Temporarily Done By Hand; A law-enforcement officer directs traffis as repairmen repair traffic lights and wiring that were downed Friday by high winds at the intersection of U.S. 40 (W. Colfax Ave.) and U.S. 6 (W. 6th Ave.) near Golden. State patrol and Jefferson County Sheriff's Department patrolmen herded traffic around the site for about 30 minutes be-Ãfore crews arrived to replace the control devices. State Patrol office at Golden reported no other damage Friday.; (Photo By Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
CANADA - APRIL 01: Metro's old-style traffic lights (above) may give way to more modern ones (below) depending on the results of a test by roads officials. The new style of traffic light; being tested on Bay St. opposite Toronto City Hall; has a square outline; is compact and more modern. (Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Friday, February 13, 2004: -- Bill Grant of Gardiner lifts a traffic light at the intersection of Highland Ave. and Ocean St. in South Portland as part of an annual safety check making sure the lights are hung securely. (Photo by Fred Field/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A shopper browses through items bearing the famous east German 'ampelmaennchen' (little traffic light man) in a shop in Berlin 26 January 2006. The little green and red men, saved from oblivion by a 'committee to save the little traffic light men', not only still adorn traffic lights in the former east Germany (GDR), but can be found on everything from a mug or a T-shirt, to a cork screw, thanks to German Designer Markus Heckhausen and his team. (Photo credit JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
BAODING, CHINA - JUNE 24: A worker examines the circuit boards of solar traffic signal lamps at the plant of Victory Traffic Facilities Engineering Co., Ltd on June 24, 2009 in Baoding, China. China's top economic planning agency will soon submit a draft support plan of the country's new energy industry to the State Council for approval, a plan that would focus on nuclear power and renewable energy as wind and solar power, according to an official of the National Bureau of Energy. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 14: A pedestrian crossing signal showing a hetrosexual couple at a junction on July 14, 2015 in Munich, Germany. The city, taking a cue from a similar project in the Austrian city of Vienna, introduced new signals featuring homosexual couples at a limited number of traffic lights in the city center for the recent CSD gay pride march and has since decided to keep them. The figures glow in red and green at pedestrian crosswalks and show both female and male couples. Other cities in Germany, including Berlin and Hamburg, are also seizing on the initiative. Europe has seen a surge in gay rights awareness since the May gay marriage referendum in Ireland. (Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images)
MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 14: A pedestrian crossing signal showing a female homosexual couple at a junction on July 14, 2015 in Munich, Germany. The city, taking a cue from a similar project in the Austrian city of Vienna, introduced the new signals at a limited number of traffic lights in the city center for the recent CSD gay pride march and has since decided to keep them. The figures glow in red and green at pedestrian crosswalks and show both female and male couples. Other cities in Germany, including Berlin and Hamburg, are also seizing on the initiative. Europe has seen a surge in gay rights awareness since the May gay marriage referendum in Ireland. (Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images)
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The nation's driving steadily increased for 15 consecutive months through May, the Transportation Department said in July. Americans drove 1.26 trillion miles in the first five months of 2015, passing the previous record, 1.23 trillion, set in May 2007.
However, the cumulative increase in vehicle mileage this year through May is 3.4 percent, far less than the 14 percent increase in deaths, Hersman noted. Also, the estimated annual mileage death rate so far this year is 1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from the preliminary 2014 rate of 1.2 deaths.
Other safety trends are at play as well. In recent decades, deaths due to crashes involving drunken driving have dropped from about 50 percent of fatalities to about 30 percent, she said. Teen driving deaths are also down, and seatbelt use is up. And cars have more safety technology than ever, although drivers sometimes don't use it or don't know how to use it, Hersman said.
On the other hand, a growing number of states are raising speed limits, and everywhere drivers are distracted by cellphone calls and text messages. The council estimated in a report this spring that a quarter of all crashes involve cellphone use. Besides fatal crashes, that includes injury-only and property damage-only crashes.
"For many years people have said, 'If distraction is such a big issue, why don't we see an increase in fatal crash numbers?' Well, we're seeing increasing fatal crashes numbers, but I think it's complicated to tease out what that is due to," Hersman said.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, confirmed that states have taken note of the trend as well.
Given the stronger economy, lower unemployment and low gas prices, "we have expected an uptick in travel and, sadly, deaths," he said.
"The increase is definitely troubling," Adkins said. "But after such historic declines in recent years, it's not unexpected to see an upswing."