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Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday it estimates that traffic deaths jumped 9.5 percent in the first three months of the year to about 7,500.

But the jump is three times the amount of additional driving Americans did. Vehicle miles traveled in the first three months of 2014 increased by about 9.8 billion miles, or about a 3.9-percent increase.

The fatality rate for the first quarter of 2015 increased to 1.04 fatalities per 100 million miles up from the projected rate of 0.99 fatalities per 100 million in the first quarter of 2014. The number of deaths rose by 650 in the first three months. It would be the highest number of first quarter deaths since 2012.

NHTSA said it doesn’t know why deaths have risen. The agency “is continuing to gather/finalize data on crash fatalities for 2013, 2014 and 2015 using information from police accident reports and other sources. It is too soon to speculate on the contributing factors or potential implications of any changes in deaths on our roadways.”

NHTSA said in the last few years “since recording a significant increase of 11.8 percent during the first quarter of 2012, the magnitude of the increases steadily declined during each subsequent quarter.”

Earlier this month, the National Safety Council said U.S. traffic deaths are on pace to hit their highest since 2007.

The group said traffic deaths are 14 percent higher through the first six months of 2015 than they were during the same period in 2014. Serious injuries are 30 percent higher.

From January to June, 18,630 people died in traffic crashes across the U.S., and more than 2.2 million were seriously injured. The group also estimated the costs of traffic deaths, injuries and property damage is $152 billion — 24 percent higher than 2014.

The group said total road deaths were 18,630 in the first half of 2015, up 14 percent from the same period in 2014, or 16,400, and up 12 percent over the same period in 2013. The group said total deaths could top 40,000 in 2015 for the first time since 2007.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said earlier this week the number of deaths on U.S. roads is "unacceptable."

"The toll of deaths and injuries on our roads is unacceptable, which drives NHTSA to continue strengthening core safety programs, improving vehicle safety and speeding the development of life-saving technology innovations," Trowbridge said.

Part of the increase is due to the fact that U.S. drivers are on pace to drive a record number of miles in 2015. Drivers put 3.4 percent more miles on their odometers in the first five months of the year.

"Follow the numbers: The trend we are seeing on our roadways is like a flashing red light — danger lies ahead," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council and a former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The National Safety Council said "an improving economy with lower gas prices and unemployment rates herald increases in vehicle miles traveled. Average gas prices are 30 percent lower than they were in 2014 and are projected to remain relatively stable heading into 2016." This generally means an increase in traffic; more people can afford to drive, and many travel longer distances and take vacations.

This month, the Federal Highway Administration said Americans drove a record 1.54 trillion miles in the first six months of 2015, passing the previous record — 1.5 trillion — set in June 2007. The nation's driving has steadily increased for 16 consecutive months.

“This is more than double the amount driven during the same period in 1981, continuing a trend of America’s driving mileage doubling nearly every generation,” the agency said.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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