U.S. says traffic deaths rose 12% in first nine months of 2021 to 31,720

WASHINGTON, Feb 1 (Reuters) - U.S. auto safety regulators on Tuesday said traffic deaths rose 12% in the first nine months of 2021 to 31,720 - the highest number killed on American roads in that period since 2006, according to its initial estimate.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in the third quarter traffic deaths were estimated to have risen 3.9%.

The 12% reported increase, or 3,395 additional deaths, in the first nine months is the highest reported since NHTSA began using its current traffic fatality tracking system in 1975.

The numbers suggest the United States surpassed 40,000 traffic deaths in 2021 for the first time since 2007. Road deaths through September slightly outpaced the 11.7% increase in vehicle miles traveled.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) released a strategy designed to cut the soaring number of traffic deaths on American roads that it calls a "crisis."

NHTSA said 38 states were projected to have increases in traffic deaths in the first nine months, while two states were unchanged and 10 states and Washington DC were projected to have decreases.

Idaho led all states with a 36.4% increase, followed by Nevada at 30%, Oregon at 29.3%, Minnesota 25.5%, North Dakota 23.6% and Texas 22.3%.

In an interview, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he wants to see a "mentality shift" away from traffic deaths as acceptable.

"The country has just become used to it. We've just come to assume or expect that it's inevitable," Buttigieg told Reuters. "We would never tolerate 40,000 deaths in aircraft in the United States" or from food poisoning at restaurants or in subways."

Last week, Buttigieg outlined the department's new "National Roadway Safety Strategy." He wants to encourage designing safer roads and safer vehicles and is embracing "Vision Zero" - the idea that the United States could eventually eliminate all traffic deaths.

Traffic deaths surged after coronavirus lockdowns ended in 2020 as more drivers engaged in unsafe behavior like speeding and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

NHTSA plans to write rules to require automatic emergency braking technologies on new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks, and is scheduled to write other new regulations but that often takes years.

One factor for the big jump in 2020 was that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in riskier behavior, NHTSA said.

As U.S. roads became less crowded, some motorists perceived police were less likely to issue tickets because of COVID-19, experts say.

NHTSA released behavioral research findings from March 2020 through June indicating incidents of speeding and traveling without a seatbelt were higher than before the pandemic.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bernard Orr

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