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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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