Why more people are suddenly dying on U.S. roads

Car speeding past a wooden cross and floral wreath marking the spot where a fatal automobile accident occurred.

Car speeding past a wooden cross and floral wreath marking the spot where a fatal automobile accident occurred.

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) — U.S. roads have taken a deadlier turn to a degree we haven’t seen in nearly five decades.

For years, statistics surrounding road safety had seen a vast improvement. But now that’s changed.

In 2015, there were 35,092 reported deaths on U.S. roads, up 7.2% from 2014 — the largest jump since 1966. Meanwhile, the National Safety Council said last week 2016 is on track to be even worse. Fatalities were up 9% in the first half of the year.

The federal government on Monday issued what it called an unprecedented call to action to determine what’s gone wrong.

So what can we blame for this sudden reversal? Some of the answers from experts might surprise you: smartphone use, fracking — a trendy method of drilling for oil — climate change and a strong economy all play a role.

“It’s a very complex system,” said Ken Kolosh, the director of statistical reporting at the National Safety Council. “You can never say emphatically it’s these two or three things.”

Cheap gas prices — driven in part by more fracking and ultimately a larger supply of oil — has led more people to spend time on the roads, increasing the chances of getting into a crash.

Meanwhile, now that the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, there are more business vehicles on roads. This has upped the likelihood of hulking trucks striking smaller cars.

In stronger economic times, teenagers — who are high-risk drivers — are also more likely to be driving to jobs. Parents have been more likely able to afford insurance and a vehicle for their teens to drive, too.

Highway safety officials in Illinois — which is among the top states to see a large jump in deaths — not only points to low gas prices as a cause, but also a milder winter.

The U.S. experienced its warmest winter ever in 2015 – 2016. With better weather, people are more likely to spend time outside on motorcycles and bicycles. Pedestrians are also more inclined to be outside during nice weather, creating more chances to be injured.

“Bad winter weather actually saves lives; while it’s tough to drive in winter weather, drivers know that and avoid it,” said Kolosh.

Not surprisingly, smartphone use has increased the prevalence of distracted driving, too.

For example, the National Safety Council found a 34% increase in deaths in Georgia. The state is seeing more single vehicle crashes, lane departure, over-correction and striking of fixed objects.

“These are characteristics of distraction, and we believe texting to be the primary [cause],” said Harris Blackwood, the director of Georgia’s highway safety office.