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Traffic fatalities in the U.S. are at their highest levels in two decades

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Back to the U.S. now. If you are headed home after this long holiday weekend, drive carefully. U.S. roads are more dangerous than they have been in a generation. Traffic fatalities are at a 20-year high, despite the fact that cars are safer than they've ever been. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Hundreds of people turned out in Grandview, Mo., last week for the funeral of Charles Criniere, devoted father of 10.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We invite you to stand and sing with us again.

MORRIS: Criniere was out for an early morning bike ride when a hit-and-run driver slammed into him from behind. He was pronounced dead at the scene - just 43 years old, a beloved husband, teacher and coach, says his brother, Eric Criniere.

ERIC CRINIERE: (Crying) He was the best brother ever, and I'll miss you, Charlie.

MORRIS: And this kind of thing happens over and over again - every single day - all over the country. Mark Chung of the National Safety Council says car wrecks killed almost 46,000 Americans last year.

MARK CHUNG: That's like a regional jet crashing every day - regional jet carrying 125 people crashing every single day of last year.

MORRIS: The 10% jump in deaths last year was the worst increase on record, and the fatality rate is still climbing. And this is a massive reversal. The grim spike in deaths follows a long, persistent decline since the 1970s, driven by huge advances in vehicle safety features, road design and seatbelt compliance.

CATHY CHASE: It's devastating.

MORRIS: Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says the pandemic seemed to set it off.

CHASE: Our roadways were turned into racetracks. And excessive speed really went up through the roof. And more people were driving while impaired.

MORRIS: Chase says that motorists messed up on drugs and alcohol or distracted by their cellphones and not wearing seat belts are driving the sharp rise in traffic deaths.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

MORRIS: That squares with the careless, aggressive driving that Police Sergeant Corey Carlisle sees here in downtown Kansas City. Carlisle says most deadly crashes used to happen on major highways. Now, he says, they're common on these city streets.

COREY CARLISLE: We're stopping people going 120. I mean, that's if they stop. So the new trend is, high speeds, not stopping for the police.

MORRIS: The police here, like many places, are short-staffed. They're making fewer stops. And for safety's sake, they won't get into a high-speed chase just for a traffic violation. But Carlisle says Kansas City cops are making close to triple the number of impaired driving arrests that they were before the pandemic. And though newer cars are safer for passengers, they're often bigger, faster and heavier than they used to be, making them more lethal for everyone else.

CARLISLE: And if you're driving a 3,000 pound vehicle at 50 to 100 miles an hour, you're weaponizing that car, and you're the one pulling the trigger. It's the same thing.

MORRIS: And this is primarily an American problem. Mark Chung at the National Safety Council says no other developed countries are seeing a surge in traffic fatalities. But Chung says the U.S. may be on the verge of turning things around. Just last week, a new federal regulation kicked in, requiring all new cars to have automatic braking systems that fire when the car is about to hit something.

CHUNG: That technology is to assist the driver in recognizing that obstacle. And if you're not fast enough to apply the brakes, it will do that for you.

MORRIS: That's going to save lives. In fact, a system like that could have spared Charles Criniere, the Kansas City area father of 10, killed when he was hit from behind by an inattentive driver. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "HAPPIER THAN EVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.