Back in 2011, according to statistics from the federal government, 32,479 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States. Now, granted, that's a lot of people — but that figure still represented the fewest number of fatalities since 1949.

That decline in highway fatalities came as a result of a number of factors. Chief among them: Cars are a lot safer than they were seven decades ago, and so are our roadways.

Since 2011, though, the number of fatalities reported each year has been edging upward. In 2015, for example, 35,485 deaths were reported on the nation's roads and highways, a whopping 10.5 percent increase over the year before. It was the largest year-over-year increase in terms of percentages since 1946.

The 2016 toll from fatal auto accidents rose again, to 37,461, the highest number since 2007. (The final tally from 2017 isn't yet available.)

Still, cars seem to add new safety features every year. And we're constantly at work trying to make our highways safer. So what can explain the increase in fatalities after decades in which the number continued to drop?

We suspect you know at least part of the answer to that question already. If not, the next time you're at a stoplight, take a look at the other drivers around you. Chances are good that you won't have to wait too long to see somebody texting on their cellphone or otherwise grappling with the clever little devices.

Our suspicion is that the big factor in the increase in traffic fatalities is a corresponding rise in the amount of distracted driving.

Now, it's true that distracted driving, in all its forms, has been an issue for decades. But the advent of the cellphone, a device that practically screams "distraction," has increased the temptation for drivers to pay considerably less attention to the road.

In 2016, 3,450 deaths in the United States were attributed to distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. We'd be very surprised if the final statistics for 2017 didn't show an increase in that number.

Which brings us to 2018. The mid-valley has seen five fatal motor vehicles in just the last three weeks, and this region isn't an aberration. Oregon State Police officers say they're seeing an increase in fatal wrecks this year, and they blame an increase in distracted driving.

Tim Fox, a State Police spokesman, said officers see distracted drivers with much more frequency. "They're not giving their full attention to driving," he said. "We do it so often we tend to take it for granted."

Here's the takeaway. We can't possibly control all the distractions that come our way while we're driving. But we can do much more to limit distractions that are within our control. Phones can be put on hands-free settings — or, even better, turned off. Set the stereo and your map app before you pull out. That loaded taco you were planning to eat on the road? Try a snack you can eat without taking your eyes off the road for too long.

If you're the parent of a teenage driver, you have more work ahead of you. The auto club AAA has dubbed the stretch of time between Memorial Day and Labor Day "The 100 Deadliest Days" for traffic crashes, and the risks are higher for teenage drivers. In 2016, AAA said, more than 1,050 people were killed in crashes involving a teen driver during that period. 

Take extra time with your teenage driver to review some basic safety messages about speeding and distracted driving. And remind them that they shouldn't be answering their cellphones if they're driving — even if you're the party calling.

Here's a case where the statistics tell the story. Staying focused on your primary task while driving is the best way to prevent becoming a statistic yourself.

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