A Texas state trooper investigates a head-on crash last month in San Angelo,… (Kimberley Meyer / The San…)
WASHINGTON -- Traffic deaths nationally were down last year to their lowest level since record-keeping began in 1949.
But not in North Dakota, where they were up 41%, the biggest increase of any state.
Fourteen states, including California, recorded an increase in motor vehicle fatalities, even though the 32,367 traffic deaths last year were down 1.9% from the previous year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The traffic safety agency this year projected a record low in 2011 traffic deaths as motorists drove less, perhaps because of high gas prices and a still-difficult economy. On Monday, the agency released updated numbers, confirming 1.10 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
Motorcycle fatalities increased 2.1% last year from the previous year to 4,612, accounting for 14% of total fatalities. Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped by 2.5%, to 9,878, but accounted for 31% total motor vehicle deaths. Fatal crashes involving alcohol-impaired motorcycle operators increased by 8.6%, according to the traffic safety agency.
The number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes increased by 1.9% to 3,331.
California recorded 2,791 traffic deaths last year, up 2.6% from the previous year.
Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety said he was disappointed by the increase in California but not surprised.
"Even with the slight increase, California traffic deaths have not been this low since 1944," he said, noting that although the state’s fatality rate may be rising, "we are still far lower than the rest of the nation."
"While it is still too early to draw conclusions about the data and the reasons for the increase, the strengthening economy and increase in the state’s population may be factors," he added.
In North Dakota, which recorded 148 traffic fatalities, up from 105, Peggy Anderson of the state Department of Transportation noted that the state has seen increases in population and traffic.
Although vehicle miles traveled were down nationally last year, North Dakota experienced a 10% increase in vehicle miles traveled on its state highway system.
Anderson said that state officials "feel that even one fatality on our roadways is one too many."
She also said that when it comes to traffic fatalities, the three contributing factors "continue to be lack of seat belt usage, alcohol and speed." In 2011, 69.5% of the vehicle fatalities in the state were not wearing a seat belt, 43% were because the driver was under the influence of alcohol and 32% involved speeding.
Connecticut led all states on the positive side, with 100 fewer traffic deaths last year than the year before, a 31% decline.
Although North Dakota had the biggest percentage increase in traffic deaths, California and New Jersey recorded the largest increase in the number of fatalities -- 71 each. For New Jersey, that was a 13% increase.