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    Mass. car crash deaths surge; experts blame distracted driving

    Boston, MA - 5/1/2016 - A box of flowers sat at the scene of yesterday's fatal crash involving a duck boat and a woman riding a scooter in Boston, MA May 1, 2016. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff Topic: Reporter:
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
    A box of flowers sat at the scene of a fatal crash.

    Deaths from motor vehicle crashes rose last year in Massachusetts — and across the nation — continuing a troubling multiyear surge that experts believe is being fueled in part by more people driving while distracted by cellphones and other devices.

    An estimated 399 people statewide were killed in vehicle crashes in 2016, according to the report, which was released Wednesday by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit created by Congress to promote safety.

    That was 13 percent higher than the 354 killed in 2015, and 15 percent higher than the 348 people killed in 2014.

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    Experts believe an improving economy and lower gas prices are contributing to the increase in deaths because they lead to more traffic, as more people commute to work and can afford to drive farther and take vacations.

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    Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association of Southern New England, said that distracted driving has become a major component in the fatalities.

    “In our society nowadays, we look at time spent in our vehicle as time to multitask,” she said.

    Drivers are often distracted by using or looking at mobile devices and screens built into their vehicles’ dashboards, Maguire said.

    Nationally, the report estimated, there were 40,200 driving-related fatalities last year, making it the deadliest year on the country’s roads since 2007, when there were about 41,000 deaths. The figure also marked a 6 percent increase from 2015 and a 14 percent increase from 2014, the most dramatic two-year spike in 53 years.

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    The state’s highway safety director, Jeff Larason, called the rise in fatalities “troubling” and said state officials are “focused on driver distraction as the most problematic factor.”

    He said the state plans to continue to run public-awareness campaigns to urge people not to drive while distracted.

    Experts said other bad habits continue to contribute to vehicle deaths, including speeding, not using a seat belt (Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of seat-belt usage nationally), and driving while drunk or high.

    Maguire of AAA said that the urge to engage in some risky driving behaviors — particularly to try to save time — may be stronger in New England than in other areas.

    “We’re such a go-go productive society, and we’re very much in a hurry in New England so the temptation is very strong” to run a red light, speed, or text while driving, she said.

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    And, our region has “a significant problem with gridlock and challenging weather [that] may make drivers more impatient and stressed than they may be in other places.”

    “Drivers need to realign their priorities and they need to slow down and slow down not just their cars but the pace of their lives,” Maguire said.

    Driving deaths by state
    Figures are considered to be preliminary estimates.
    State 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
    TOTAL U.S. 40,200 37,757 35,398 35,369 36,415
    Alabama 1,044 846 821 840 833
    Alaska 84 65 71 50 59
    Arizona 950 881 768 842 817
    Arkansas 545 533 467 481 545
    California 3,680 3,249 3,084 3,134 2,994
    Colorado 605 545 465 465 466
    Connecticut 307 283 249 276 262
    Delaware 119 130 125 100 116
    Dist. of Columbia 28 26 26 29 19
    Florida 3,037 2,955 2,501 2,352 2,442
    Georgia 1,540 1,394 1,145 1,158 1,182
    Hawaii 119 94 99 105 125
    Idaho 253 217 186 213 185
    Illinois 1,078 1,017 910 999 952
    Indiana 820 817 727 780 778
    Iowa 403 320 319 317 362
    Kansas 431 357 385 349 409
    Kentucky 830 748 666 638 743
    Louisiana 661 646 630 672 670
    Maine 159 156 135 144 162
    Maryland 490 508 438 455 498
    Massachusetts 399 354 348 334 353
    Michigan 1,064 982 893 952 932
    Minnesota 398 409 358 376 385
    Mississippi 670 645 605 606 571
    Missouri 939 862 759 756 830
    Montana 190 224 192 228 204
    Nebraska 217 244 221 205 211
    Nevada 327 326 285 260 258
    New Hampshire 137 114 92 135 105
    New Jersey 607 553 563 546 591
    New Mexico 398 296 372 308 351
    New York 953 - - - -
    North Carolina 1,435 1,396 1,259 1,247 1,269
    North Dakota 113 131 136 149 170
    Ohio 1,129 1,105 1,011 994 1,113
    Oklahoma 668 631 655 615 642
    Oregon 495 446 350 314 333
    Pennsylvania 1,189 1,205 1,215 1,211 1,311
    Rhode Island 53 45 52 66 64
    South Carolina 1,015 954 823 761 845
    South Dakota 116 133 136 133 134
    Tennessee 1,042 961 967 996 1,019
    Texas 3,751 3,490 3,464 3,360 3,339
    Utah 280 275 256 219 217
    Vermont 64 57 44 70 77
    Virginia 750 755 703 741 774
    Washington 536 567 467 429 441
    West Virginia 269 270 271 319 335
    Wisconsin 592 561 498 530 601
    Wyoming 112 145 149 87 120
    SOURCE: National Safety Council

    Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele