The trend of falling traffic deaths in recent years appears to have reversed

A news report from New Year's Day: "A woman is dead after a two-vehicle crash in Dupo on Friday evening, Illinois State Police said." The story provides few details. The car crashed into another vehicle as it was merging on Interstate 255 in Dupo. The driver lost control. The vehicle did not have its headlights on, whatever that may indicate. The motorists in the other vehicle suffered some injuries, but they were described as not being life-threatening.

And so 2016 begins in much the same way that previous years begin and end. With a fatal traffic accident. Last year, more than 1,000 individuals lost their lives on Illinois highways, which was an increase from the previous year. In addition, thousands were injured.

Across the nation, the numbers for last year are grim. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) projected that fatalities would increase overall in 2015, based on preliminary data. The first six months of last year saw an 8.1 percent increase. With gas prices falling to levels not seen for many years, people may be driving more. And with that driving comes more potential exposure to other negligent drivers.

Lives saved by the Great Recession

The Great Recession caused much hardship for people in Illinois. They lost income, jobs and in some cases, their homes. As commerce slowed, there were fewer trucks on the road. In the last few years, as the economy has begun to recover, people once again have jobs to drive to and shippers are moving more goods across the nation.

However, the recession had another effect. As traffic fatalities fell, complacency developed. After all, were not the improving statistics proof that what was being done worked? As state and federal budgets grew ever tighter, there seemed to be fewer reasons to make spending on highway safety a priority. And 2014 was a record year with the fewest number of highway deaths.

Highway deaths have begun to trend upward

Now, with increased vehicle miles travelled, that trend is reversing. The U.S. Transportation Secretary has stated this is a call to action. States and the federal government must again push safety to everyone involved in driving and transportation because with Americans driving more than 3 trillion miles every year, small changes in percentages can mean thousands of deaths.

Much of the emphasis is on safe driving behavior. Drunk driving remains a significant problem, causing a third of all highway deaths. Distracted driving likewise is a challenge, as drivers' love their smartphones, even if they may kill them.

With electronics devices and systems in vehicles, it is difficult to tell if the enhanced safety systems will be added fast enough to protect us from the distraction caused by the entertainment systems and cellphones.

It seems likely that Illinois could again see more than 1,000 deaths. But we can all do our part to help prevent that from happening by staying attentive to the road, not driving drunk, putting down the cellphone and not driving when we are sleepy.