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Traffic deaths on U.S. roads were down in 2017 after two straight years of big increases, but a toll of more than 40,000 people killed is hard to call good news.

The National Safety Council estimates 40,100 people were killed in traffic crashes, down just under 1 percent from the 2016 total of 40,327. Via a report by The Associated Press, the group said it's too early to tell whether the small decline means a downward trend after a two-year increase in deaths blamed largely on people driving more miles as the economy improved -- as well as an increase in distracted driving.

U.S. fatalities rose 7 percent in 2016, on top of a 7 percent increase from 2014 to 2015, the steepest two-year increase in more than 50 years, according to the NSC, which gets its data from states.

Prior to 2016, annual deaths had not hit 40,000 since 2007.

Motor-vehicle injuries in 2017 also fell 1 percent to an estimated 4.57 million, and the estimated cost of vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage was estimated at $413.8 billion, also down 1 percent.

The number of miles driven last year by Americans grew only 1 percent, down from the 3 percent increase in 2016. An estimated 1.25 deaths occurred per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, NSC said in the AP report. That's 2 percent lower than the 2016 rate.

Traffic deaths began dropping in 2008 and reached their lowest point in six decades in 2011 at 32,000. They fluctuated slightly over the next two years, but started climbing in the last quarter of 2014.

AP says experts attribute the spike to people driving more as the economy recovered, and increasing behavior such as going out on weekends or taking longer trips on unfamiliar roads. Also, teens, who have the highest fatal crash rates, started driving more after the recession.

The NSC fatality estimates differ slightly from those of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The government counts only deaths on public roads, while the council includes fatalities in parking lots and driveways , and on private roads.

In South Carolina, the roads continue to be among the nation's deadliest, with nearly 1,000 people a year being killed.

This past weekend, seven more deaths occurred.

According to the S.C. Department of Public Safety, as of Feb. 18, 96 people have died on South Carolina highways, compared to 137 highway deaths during the same time period in 2017.

Of the 72 motor vehicle occupants killed in 2018, 47 were not wearing seat belts, though doing so is the best insurance against dying or being seriously injured in a crash.

In South Carolina through Feb. 18, 13 pedestrians have died compared to 19 in 2017; seven motorcyclists have died compared to 10 in 2017; and two bicyclists were killed compared to four in 2017.

As much as 41 fewer lives lost on the state's roads compared to the same time a year ago is a positive and hopeful sign for 2018, there is no reason to cheer.

The target must remain zero, with the realization that Maureen Vogel of the National Safety Council is sadly on target with her assessment: "We're treading water, essentially. We're not making progress."


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