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California traffic fatalities rise 5% while national rate falls

Heavy traffic is seen on Highway 101 in Los Angeles in November 2022. California saw 965 traffic fatalities in the first quarter of this year, compared to 919 in the same period in 2023, according to preliminary data from the NHTSA.

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In the first quarter of 2024, traffic fatalities in California rose about 5%, compared to a 3.2% decrease nationwide, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The agency reported Monday that an estimated 8,650 people died in traffic accidents nationwide in the first three months of the year, compared with 8,935 in the same period last year.

In California, there were 965 traffic fatalities in the first quarter of this year, compared to 919 in the same period in 2023.

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This represents the eighth consecutive quarterly decline in the total number of traffic fatalities in the United States, despite a 0.6% increase in miles driven.

“We are encouraged that traffic fatalities continue to decline, but more must be done to reduce these preventable tragedies on our roadways,” Sophie Shulman, deputy commissioner of NHTSA, said in a statement.

California is among 19 states expected to see an increase in deaths, while 30 states are seeing a decrease and one state is seeing an unchanged death toll.

Nationally, the fatality rate fell to 1.13 per 100 million vehicle miles driven, compared to 1.18 a year earlier. In California, the rate was 1.31 per 100 million vehicle miles driven in the first quarter of 2024, higher than the same period last year (1.28).

Although the NHTSA is the most reliable source for this data, the agency excludes deaths off public roads.

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According to various traffic studies, police reports and data analyses, several factors are contributing to the rise in traffic fatalities in California. These include increasing driver distraction due to the use of smartphones and infotainment systems, higher speed limits and substance abuse, particularly driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

These sources also suggest that population growth and urban development have made traffic denser and driving conditions more complicated. After the pandemic, people began driving more recklessly, and bad weather such as wildfires and heavy rain make the roads more dangerous. The lack of road improvements and an increase in accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists further exacerbate the problem.

Traffic fatalities skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and continued to rise through early 2021, particularly in California. According to Caltrans, 4,475 deaths were reported statewide in 2021, the highest number in recent data, compared to 3,750 in 2019.

Rhode Island saw the largest decrease in traffic fatalities at 62.5%, followed by Wyoming (51.5%), Delaware (31.4%), Arkansas (26.4%) and Idaho (24.4%). Maine saw the largest increase at 107.1%, followed by Minnesota (69.4%), Vermont (50%), Nevada (38.6%) and New Jersey (35.3%).

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Contact Aidin Vaziri: avaziri@sfchronicle.com

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