DETROIT (WWJ) – More than 38,000 people died on the nation’s highways in 2015, an eight percent increase from the previous year.

“This is the single largest percent changes in motor vehicle deaths since 1966,” said Ken Kolash, manager of the statistics group at the National Safety Council. “It’s certainly more than just a statistical spike.”

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There were 982 highway deaths in Michigan last year, a ten percent increase over 2014. Kolosh said while that was worse than the national average, it wasn’t a statistically significant difference.

Kolosh said an improving economy and lower gas prices mean there are more drivers on the nation’s highways. Many of those drivers are young.

“Teenage unemployment is going down. Now, they are hitting the roads. They are one of the most at-risk populations.”

About one-third of fatal crashes involved at least one driver who was under the influence of alcohol. Kolosh said 13 percent of drivers still don’t use their seat belts.

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The rising fatality rate comes as vehicles add more safety technology like blind spot warning and automatic braking. But, it can take time for that technology to have an impact on highway deaths.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to take a decade or more for those safety technologies to populate into our cars,” said Kolosh. “A lot of us aren’t going to drop our cars tomorrow and buy the safest car available.”

Over the long-term, there has been a significant decline in highway fatalities since the 1960’s, when more than fifty thousand people died on the roads every year. But National Highway Council CEO and President Deborah Hersman said the 2015 increase should send a message to regulators and drivers.

“These numbers are serving notice: Americans take their safety on the roadways for granted,” said Hersman. “Driving a car is one of the riskiest activities any of us undertake in spite of decades of vehicle design improvements and traffic safety advancements. Engage your defensive driving skills and stay alert so we can reverse this trend in 2016.”

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