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Traffic Fatalities Rise; Trend Likely To Continue

Chapel Hill Car Accident

After a six-year dip in the number of traffic fatalities in North Carolina, deaths in 2012 rose by 5.5 percent. That's according to data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The federal agency says 1,292 people died in car accidents in North Carolina last year, with 33,561 fatalities occurring nationwide.

Researchers say the number is actually an indicator of an improving economy. With fewer people unemployed in the state, more people are on the road every morning and afternoon.  They contribute to congestion, and raise the potential for accidents.

"The other thing that contributes to it is that North Carolina is a very, very favorable place to live," said Eric Rodgman, database specialist at the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.  "Simply put, more people are moving to major cities in the state."

However, accidents aren't just occurring in major urban center. Dr. Joseph Hummer of Wayne State University spent decades studying traffic engineering in North Carolina. He says one of the biggest factors in future deaths is the sprawl he's seeing into areas not designed for a high volume of traffic.

"New developments will start to come in with the end of the recession," said Hummer. " But they're going to be out on the rural, two-lane, farm-to-market roads that were never meant to handle those kinds of traffic demands. My guess is we're in for a tough few years in highway and traffic matters."

Federal regulation of vehicle safety standards continues to get tougher. It's positive in terms of preventing deaths. But for some, the enhanced safety features actually create an extra layer of danger.

"One of the downsides of having vehicles everyone knows is safer is maybe they do try to drive a little bit faster," said Rodgman, referring to the recent auto-related death of actor Paul Walker.

Eric Mennel prepares the afternoon/evening "drive time" newscast on WUNC. Previously, he was a producer for The Story with Dick Gordon. Eric has reported for All Things Considered, This American Life, 99% Invisible and other radio programs. He covered protests and security measures at the 2012 Republican National Convention for WUSF Tampa and NPR News. One day, he hopes to own a home with a wrap-around porch.
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