(Adds more details from report, backround)
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, Aug 17 (Reuters) - U.S. traffic deaths jumped about 7% in the first three months of 2022 to 9,560, the largest first-quarter number since 2002, regulators said on Wednesday in a preliminary estimate.
Traffic deaths have been surging since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said. In 2021, U.S. traffic deaths jumped 10.5% to 42,915, the most people killed on American roads in a year since 2005.
The Biden administration has called the spike a "crisis."
Traffic deaths have jumped after pandemic lockdowns ended as more drivers engaged in unsafe behavior. Traffic deaths in the first three months of 2022 are up 21% over the 7,893 in the same period in 2020.
"The overall numbers are still moving in the wrong direction," Outgoing NHTSA Administrator Steve Cliff said in a statement. "Now is the time for all states to double down on traffic safety."
The rise in traffic deaths outpaced the 5.6% increase in U.S. road-miles traveled in the first quarter, according to the Office of Highway Policy Administration.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) lamented the lack of a government plan to address "this immediate crisis."
"We have seen a troubling lack of commitment to take action to stop the slaughter occurring on our roads," MADD said in a statement on Wednesday.
It called for a "return to the basics of enforcing hazardous driving behavior laws and prosecuting these choices to the fullest extent of the law."
Cliff announced last week he would step down to take on an environmental position in California. Safety groups wrote to the White House on Friday urging quick action to find a replacement.
Governors Highway Safety Association Director Jonathan Adkins said "tragically, the U.S. is on its way to a third straight year of surging roadway deaths."
In 2021, pedestrians killed jumped 13% to 7,342, the most since 1981 https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.gov/files/documents/812502_pedestrian-and-bicyclist-data-analysis-tsf-research-note.pdf. The number of people on bicycles who were killed rose 5% to 985, the most https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813298 since at least 1980, NHTSA said.
As U.S. roads became less crowded during the pandemic, some motorists perceived police were less likely to issue tickets, experts say, likely resulting in riskier behavior on the roads.
NHTSA research indicates incidents of speeding and traveling without wearing seatbelts were higher than before the pandemic.
The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association cited the fatality hike as it urged Congress and NHTSA to speed the adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs). "AVs don't speed, drive impaired or get distracted," the group said. (Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Bernadette Baum and Richard Chang)