Traffic deaths expected to have hit troubling milestone

Estimate represents 6% increase over 2015

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) - The United States appears to have crossed a dreaded milestone: 40,000 deaths on its roads in a single year.

The National Safety Council released estimates Wednesday that 40,200 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016. It would be the first time that more than 40,000 people died on U.S. roads since before the Great Recession.

The estimate is a 6% increase in deaths from 2015, and the council pointed to low gas prices and an improving economy as contributors to the uptick.

U.S. roads are still significantly safer than decades ago. But traffic safety advocates are concerned with the increase.

National Safety Council president Deborah A.P. Hersman told reporters at a news conference that society, the media and lawmakers have become too complacent.

"Many times, people act like there's nothing we can do to prevent these crashes, but at the end of the day they're all preventable," Hersman said. "It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be popular, but at some point we must have the stomach to do something different."

She called for stricter seat belt laws, more enforcements of speed limits, and increased restrictions on cell phone use in vehicles. The National Safety Council also has proposed ignition interlock devices for convicted drunk drivers, to prevent drunk driving deaths.

The figures are likely not a surprise to traffic safety experts, as traffic deaths have risen dramatically in recent years. In 2015, the United States saw the largest increase in traffic deaths in 50 years -- 7.2% from the prior year. And earlier this year, the federal government projected 2016's numbers would continue the trend, with another major spike.

"The trend is clear: After years of progress, highway deaths are heading in the wrong direction," said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "The good news is we know what works to save lives -- high visibility enforcement of strong traffic laws coupled with public education and awareness."

The National Safety Council also estimated the cost of traffic deaths, injuries and property damage was $432.5 billion in 2016.

The council cautioned its estimate of 40,200 deaths is provisional and may be revised as more data emerges.

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