PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- More people are dying on Broward and Palm Beach County roads and highways than at this time last year. After years of steady declines, traffic deaths are creeping up in the two counties.
As of July 31, 85 people died in traffic crashes in Palm Beach County compared to 77 at the same time last year, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. In Broward County, 106 have died so far in traffic crashes compared to 87 at the same time last year.
If that trend continues, both counties will surpass the number of traffic deaths they had in 2011 — 100 in Palm Beach and 133 in Broward.
Experts have several theories why the numbers may be creeping up, including more drivers on the road as the economy has improved slightly and more "distracted drivers" using cell phones to send texts.
"I know for a fact distractions play a large role in traffic crashes," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Tim Frith. "We need to attack driver distraction like we did with DUI and seat belts."
The problem is there are no laws against distracted driving in Florida, which is among a handful of states that doesn't have any restrictions on cell phone use or texting while driving.
"You can't give a distracted driving ticket in the state of Florida," said state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, who has pushed through several traffic safety laws after his 14-year-old daughter, Dori Slosberg, died in an accident in 1996.
He finds the uptick in traffic deaths a concern. And, like Frith, he also suspects they're up because of distracted driving. Bearing the brunt of those distractions, he thinks, are pedestrians and bicyclists, he said.
No road safety laws have been passed in the state in the past two years, said Slosberg, who is pursuing a law that would make it illegal for young drivers to text while driving.
"That's a start," he said. "When it comes to road safety, you would think this is a no-brainer. Let's keep our roads safe."
But traffic safety officials aren't quite ready to sound the alarm. After all, the traffic deaths are nowhere near what they were six years ago when they reached their peak before beginning a dramatic drop.
Between 2006 and 2010, deaths from traffic crashes declined 30 percent in Broward County from 256 to 179; and 42 percent in Palm Beach County from 212 to 123.
The slight increases could be just a statistical blip.
"It's not unusual to see a downward trend and then see a [bump]," said Trenda McPherson, a manager in the Florida Department of Transportation's Safety Office.
She also points out that a slight increase isn't unexpected. As the economy has seen some improvement, people are traveling more, she said. During the historic drop in traffic crashes, traffic safety officials blamed part of the drop on the recession.
People simply were driving less. Also, spiking gas prices made many drivers limit their trips. And a sour economy created less incentive to drive, as people limited their spending.
Bearing out her theory, there has been a slight uptick in traffic. Daily vehicle miles traveled have been declining in Broward since 2007, but they increased from 43,259,153 miles in 2010 to 43,295,870 miles last year.
Vehicle miles traveled continue to decline in Palm Beach — 33,164,685 in 2010; 32,553,266 in 2011.
But more cars on the road may not be the only reason why traffic deaths are heading up.
Frith credits the years of declines in traffic deaths on "good enforcement by law enforcement officers."
He points to Click It or Ticket campaigns urging seat belt use and special DUI squads for getting people to comply with laws. It's possible the limits of those law enforcement efforts have been reached, he said.
In 2011, 91 percent of motorists and their passengers buckled up in Palm Beach County. In Broward, nearly 90 percent did.
"It would be great if those numbers [of traffic crashes] continued to decline," Frith said. "You can see the trend going down. That ran parallel with education and enforcement."
To continue to save lives, he thinks more young people need to be educated about wearing seat belts. Their compliance is often less than other age groups.
Still, the dramatic declines that have been made in traffic deaths are significant.
"When our laws impact us to the point 90 to 100 lives are saved, that's a big, huge tool," Frith said.
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