The busy South Florida roads and highways you travel on daily had higher death tolls last year compared to 2011.
For the first time since 2005 and 2006, the number of people dying in traffic crashes went up in Broward and Palm Beach counties. The reasons could be an improving economy or just more distracted drivers, said traffic safety officials.
Lt. Tim Frith, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, said troopers are seeing more drivers busily using gadgets while speeding along.
"We see distracted driving changing people's driving habits," he said. "It's prevalent during the day and it has the characteristics of a DUI driver — driving a lot slower, tapping the breaks. When we pull alongside them, they are trying to text or talking on the cell phone."
As of Dec. 30, there were 171 traffic deaths in Broward County compared to 154 in 2011, an 11 percent increase, according to preliminary numbers from the Florida Highway Patrol. In Palm Beach County, traffic deaths went from 116 in 2011 to 136 last year, a 17 percent increase.
The bump in traffic deaths is a trend occurring across Florida as well as the nation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed the first nine months of 2012 — the latest figures available — had a 7.1 percent increase in traffic fatalities compared to the same time in 2011.
"It's huge," said state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, a longtime traffic safety advocate, about the South Florida numbers.
Safety officials say the improving economy means people who had cut back on driving during the Great Recession are back on the streets again going to shopping centers, movie theaters and restaurants.
Daily vehicle miles traveled, which shows how much people are driving, had been declining in Broward County since 2007, but they increased from 43,259,153 miles in 2010 to 43,295,870 miles in 2011.
Vehicle miles traveled continue to decline in Palm Beach County — 33,164,685 in 2010; 32,553,266 in 2011.
But Steve Polzin, a director at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, said the slight increases in traffic can't explain the significant increase in traffic deaths that South Florida saw.
"That is high," he said. "It's not just more people driving. There are other things that are compounding this."
Those things could be risky and reckless behavior, he said.
Part of the problem is there are no laws against distracted driving in Florida, Slosberg said. Florida is among a handful of states that don't have any restrictions on cell phone use or texting while driving.
"We should have addressed distracted driving in one shape or form," said Slosberg, who pointed out that no road safety laws have been passed in the state in the past two years. "Our state has gone backward in the last two years."
But he's hoping to make progress this year on legislation that would ban minors from using cell phones while driving whether they're texting or talking.
"Let's start somewhere," he said. "They're the ones who need it the most."
The other vulnerable road users are pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. While traffic deaths will be up across the board, these groups are particularly impacted, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Between 2010 and 2011, the number of bicyclists killed in Florida increased 57 percent. The number of motorcycle riders killed was up 18 percent and their passengers 15 percent.
Increasingly concerned about pedestrian and bicyclist deaths, the state launched a safety campaign in South Florida last year.
"It's great that people are seeking alternative forms of transportation," Adkins said. "We have to make sure our roads can accommodate them and our safety messages are reaching them."
Even with the increase last year, safety officials say they aren't worried unless the blip becomes a trend. Traffic deaths in South Florida and across the country are at historic lows.
Between 2006 and 2011, deaths from traffic crashes declined 37 percent in Broward County and 46 percent in Palm Beach County from 212 to 123.
Traffic fatalities had gotten so low, it's not unexpected that there could be an increase in one year, Adkins said.
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