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NHTSA: Traffic Deaths Up a Lot in First Nine Months of 2015

CARS.COM — A preliminary estimate by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows a big increase in the number of traffic deaths through the first nine months of 2015. NHTSA said today that 26,000 people died in traffic accidents from January to September of 2015, up 9.3 percent from the 23,796 deaths from January to September 2014.

Related: IIHS: Auto-Braking Slashes Rear-End Crashes, Injuries by 40 Percent

Projected fatality totals for the full year will come this spring, and barring a huge decrease in the fourth quarter, 2015 could see the first increase in traffic deaths in three years after fatalities declined in 2013 and 2014.

Vehicle-miles traveled increased roughly 3.5 percent through the first nine months of 2015, but even with that caveat, the fatality rate amounted to 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled — an increase over the full-year rates for 2014 and 2013. If that carries through to the full year, it would be the highest annual rate since 2012's 1.14 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

The northwest and southeast U.S. largely drove the 2015 increase. NHTSA says fatalities in the first nine months of the year increased 20 percent in its northwest region (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington) and 16 percent in its southeast region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee). No single region saw its fatalities decrease in the nine-month period.

NHTSA says the data are based on preliminary estimates, and final totals for both 2014 and 2015 are still pending. The agency cautioned that it's "too soon to speculate" about why the increase occurred or what changes it should drive, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement today that the "apparent increase in 2015 is a signal that we need to do more."

NHTSA says human factors contribute to 94 percent of all car crashes; the agency is conducting a series of regional safety summits to discuss the reasons for traffic accidents and how to reduce them.