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NHTSA: Traffic Deaths Shot Up 5.3 Percent to 34,080 in 2012

Deaths from motor vehicle crashes rose 5.3 percent in 2012, according to new numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [PDF]. It's the first time since 2005 that fatalities have gone up. Vehicle miles traveled only rose 0.3 percent last year.

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The winter was especially nasty, with 12.6 percent more deaths than the previous winter. But every quarter last year showed more traffic deaths than the same quarter in 2011. All in all, the tragic death toll of 34,080 is a shocking reversal of a six-year steady decline.

In February, the National Safety Council put its 2012 fatality estimate at 36,200.

Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities weren't noted on the release from NHTSA, which is only an "early estimate" of the 2012 toll. We'll have to wait until the agency releases the final numbers to see the stats for people biking and walking, which have been going up in recent years as overall deaths have been going down.

Fatalities rose the most in the northeast (>15 percent), the south (10 percent) and in the region comprising California, Arizona and Hawaii (9 percent).

Last year, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland credited the historic drop in fatalities -- to a still-staggering 32,367 lives lost -- to improved driving behavior, vehicle safety, and educational campaigns against drunk driving and for seat belt use. We'll see how the agency explains the alarming increase in deaths last year.

NSC officials pointed to distracted driving and an increase in the number of heavy trucks on the roads as possible explanations for the increased bloodshed.

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