(Bloomberg) -- The death toll on U.S. highways rose 8.1% in thefirst half of 2015 as low fuel prices contributed to a jump inmiles driven by Americans, according to new figures from theTransportationDepartment.

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The preliminary figures represent a “troubling departure” from ageneral downward trend over the past decade, the National HighwayTraffic Safety Administration said in a report releasedTuesday. In 2014, the fatality rate hit an all-time low.

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“These numbers are a call to action,” U.S. TransportationSecretary Anthony Foxx said in an e-mailed statement. “Everyonewith a responsibility for road safety — the federal, state andlocal governments, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, safetyadvocates and road users -- needs to reassess our efforts to combatthreats to safety.”

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Americans drove about 51.9 billion miles more in the first halfof 2015 than the same period last year, about a 3.5% increase,NHTSA said. Job growth and low fuel prices also may be factors inthe sudden, unexpected surge in highway fatalities, the agencysaid. There was also more leisure travel and driving by youngpeople, which can contribute to higher fatality rates.

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However, the death rate also increased. Fatalities per millionvehicle-miles driven rose in the first half of 2015 was 1.06%, or4.4% higher than the same period in 2014.

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Record low

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In final figures for 2014, 32,675 people died in U.S.motor-vehicle crashes, a 0.1% decline from 2013. The fatality ratedeclined to 1.07 deaths per million vehicle-miles traveled, whichwas a record low for a complete year.

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There were significant regional differences in fatalities so farthis year, as states in the Southeast — Florida, Alabama,Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — saw a 15% increase.The second highest increase, 11%, was recorded in a group ofWestern states: Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. By contrast,California and Arizona saw no increase in fatalities, and the NewEngland region saw an increase of 1%.

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The biggest factors in traffic fatalities remain the lack ofseat-belt use and drunken driving. Nearly half of all people killedin road crashes aren’t wearing seat belts, and one-third of allfatalities are in crashes involve intoxicated drivers.

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Distracted driving accounted for 3,179 deathsin 2014, about 10% of the total. Drowsy driving was involved in2.6% of the fatalities.

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States without mandatory motorcycle helmet laws saw a “farhigher” number of fatalities than states with such laws, the agencysaid. There were 1,565 motorcycle deaths in 2014, it said.

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Copyright 2018 Bloomberg. All rightsreserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten,or redistributed.

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