Why are fatal crashes happening more often?

Fatality car crashes are on the rise and safety officials want to know why.

A troublesome trend has taken root on the nation's roadways, and safety officials can't help but be concerned. Approximately 35,200 people died last year in automobile accidents, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For the past several years, driving fatalities have hovered at right around 30,000 to 32,000, meaning that deadly incidents rose rather significantly last year, up 7.7%.

More than halfway through 2016, the highway safety issues continue to pile up. According to soon-to-be-finalized analysis from the National Safety Council, motor vehicle-related fatalities were nearly 10% higher through the first six months of this year versus the same span in 2015. Should deadly accidents maintain the same pace in 2016's latter half, an estimated 38,200 will have lost their lives in vehicle collisions.

Perhaps the biggest question on everyone's mind is why deadly car crashes are occurring so frequently. After all, with everything that's known about the importance of driving defensively and road rules in place designed to keep commuters safe, you'd think they'd be less often.

Deadly accidents up since states raised speed limits

Some believe the problem emanates from the speed limits raised by lawmakers at the state level. As noted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, over 30 years ago, the maximum speed limit in all 50 states was 55 miles per hour, implemented in an effort to cut down on fuel use during the oil crisis. Once energy concerns dissipated, so too did the 55 mph speed limit restriction, and states were permitted to determine how fast motorists could travel lawfully. In most states, the maximum allowable speed limit is 65 mph, but there are a handful of places where on certain stretches of road drivers can travel at 85 mph, including Texas.

"Since 2013, speeds have only become more extreme," said Charles Farmer, IIHS Vice President for Research and Statistical Services. "The trend shows no sign of abating. "We hope state lawmakers will keep in mind the deadly consequences of higher speeds when they consider raising limits."

More communities turning off red-light cameras

Meanwhile, others say the rise in fatalities may stem from state and local legislatures opting to rescind programs designed to dissuade motorists from not following the rules of the road. For example, citing privacy concerns and faulty performance, red light cameras have been decommissioned in several communities that had them up and running. In a separate study by the IIHS, fatal red-light accidents have risen 30% per capita in these areas since the cameras were turned off.

Traffic officials concede that behaviors are the leading reason for car accidents. In a bid to protect more lives, automakers are reinforcing today's lineup of vehicles so they're more crash resistant. The government is getting involved as well by reaching out to people whose actions before getting behind the wheel can make all the difference. In August, NHTSA launched its four-day "Safe Cars Save Lives" Bus Tour, with stops throughout much of the South, including Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. Since 2014, deadly car accidents in the Sunshine State have risen by almost 45%.

"We're meeting motorists in their communities to show them that protecting their vehicles means protecting their loved ones," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind in a press release. "We want to show people how simple it can be to take safety into their own hands. Taking a few minutes to run a safety check on your car, tires or car seats could help prevent a crash and save a life."

IIHS wants drivers to choose cars that best keep motorists from harm in a crash. That's why it routinely releases reviews on all-new vehicles that it deems to be "Top Safety Picks." For example, the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe and the 2017 Kia Sorento were recently bestowed with the highly coveted Top Safety Pick+ designations, due in large part to both automobiles featuring high-quality automatic braking systems.

Driving defensively and selecting well-crafted vehicles that have been through a battery of crash tests are two ideal ways to stay safe. Here's a look at all of the Top Safety Picks over the past decade. While you're at it, check this out for other information on car safety.