Global warming was responsible for thousands of road deaths in 2015, according to a new study, contradicting many public safety experts who blame increased cell phone use for the spike in traffic fatalities.
“As temperatures continue to increase from heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, road deaths will likely increase more than expected unless there are major mitigating countermeasures,” retired Yale University epidemiologist Leon Robertson said in a statement.
Traffic deaths rose by 2,348, or 7.2 percent, in 2015 to 35,200, according to Transportation Department data. Robertson said rising temperatures and increased rainfall had people driving more miles than they would have otherwise, leading to more deaths.
“If millions more people drive cars because the temperature is getting warmer … then that adds up to a lot of miles,” Robertson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Mainly it’s a simple multiplication.”
Robertson’s study found that warmer weather accounted for most of the extra deaths in 2015. That year saw the largest jump in traffic deaths in 50 years, and is one of a handful of years to disrupt the massive decrease in traffic deaths since the 1970s.
The Transportation Department, however, said human factors were to blame for most of the traffic deaths in 2015. Human factors include drunk driving, distracted driving — which includes cell phone use — and speeding.
The department also found “[vehicle miles traveled] and the average monthly temperature had strong, positive relationships with the number of fatalities, meaning that more fatalities tended to occur when more driving was done, and also when weather was warmer.”
People may also be traveling more due to low gas prices. Crude oil prices began collapsing in summer 2014, and the national average price at the pump was 90 cents below 2014 levels at $2.52 a gallon.
That year also saw the largest increase in vehicle miles traveled on record — a 3.5 percent increase.
Transportation officials, however, found no strong relationship between gas prices and traffic fatalities, though “they show that more fatalities tend to occur with low unemployment and low gas prices.”
Does that mean Robertson is right?
Warm winter weather may have convinced more people to drive in 2015, but global warming refers to long-term shifts in global average temperature, which scientists say could shift weather patterns.
The world has warned around 0.9 degrees Celsius since 1880, according to government data. The U.S. has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, with most of the warming occurring since the 1970s.
What’s happened to traffic fatalities during that time? It’s fallen dramatically.
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