DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — The number of traffic fatalities continues to climb nationally even though traffic volume hasn’t picked back up to pre-pandemic levels.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 9,560 people died in traffic crashes during the first quarter of this year. That’s an increase of about seven percent compared to the first quarter of last year. This is the highest quarterly total since 2002.

“I’m sorry to report, the overall numbers are still moving in the wrong direction,” states Dr. Steven Cliff, the NHTSA Administrator.

Last year’s traffic deaths were at a 15-year high with nearly 43,000 people killed on U.S. roads.

For three years before the pandemic, the number of fatal crashes was declining. But in 2020, even though people were driving less, that number started to rise. Ever since lockdowns lifted and people returned to work and started taking more road trips, traffic deaths have risen. 

“We hoped these trends were limited to 2020 but sadly they aren’t,” says Dr. Cliff.

Experts blame the increase on bad driving habits and riskier behaviors on the roads. A survey from AAA found people are reading text messages, speeding, running red lights, not wearing seatbelts, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

The NHTSA has started running ads, urging people to slow down and not drive impaired. 

The transportation department has also set up a five billion dollar program this year, offering grants for road improvement projects to prevent fatalities.