HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - According to early estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 9,560 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first quarter of this year. 

It’s about a seven-percent increase from the first quarter of 2021. If the estimates are accurate, it would be the highest number of first quarter fatalities since 2002. It's a rising trend that’s become more evident since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“2020 was the first year where we saw a clear trend shift,” said Leo Waldenback, Co-Founder of Zutobi, an international driver’s education company. 

NHTSA data show traffic fatalities have been steadily declining across the country from 1975-2019, but the recent trends are concerning for experts like Waldenback. 

“It's apparent that it's become more dangerous than ever to drive in the U.S., and we saw this massive increase in fatalities between 2019 and 2020, the first year of the pandemic,” said Waldenback. 

Though not as bad as national averages, Pennsylvania still saw an overall increase of fatal crashes during the pandemic from 1,059 in 2019 to 1,230 in 2021. Fatalities involving a 16 or 17-year-old driver rose from 30 in 2019 to 45 in 2021, and alcohol-related crashes were to blame for an additional twelve fatalities in 2021 compared to 2019. Distracted driving is another growing issue, especially among young drivers. 

“It significantly reduces your reaction time, and that's the reason why it's so dangerous, specifically with mobile phones,” said Waldenback. 

A spokesperson for PennDOT sent the following statement to ErieNewsNow earlier this week on the topic of distracted driving in Pennsylvania: 

“Distracted driving is an issue of constant concern for the department. While it’s too soon to speak to specific numbers for 2022, we do seem to be seeing a rise in distracted driving fatalities so far this year. In 2021, there were 60 distracted driving fatalities, up from 47 in 2020. 

Most of PennDOT’s work related to distracted driving is focused on outreach and awareness. PennDOT and our community partners hold events in schools and communities around the state related to all manner of diver safety topics, and distraction is always a focus. 

Additionally, the 2022 Strategic Highway Safety Plan update includes several strategies related to distracted driving, such as collaborating with dealerships to educate all drivers on new vehicle technologies, establishing partnerships with large employers to institute safe driving practices including reducing distracted and drowsy driving, continuing to install edgeline and centerline rumble strips where inattentive driving concerns are documented, and supporting high-visibility enforcement operations focused on reducing distracted driving.” 

Waldenback says it’s time to focus on the root causes and being preventative instead of reactive, which is exactly what his company aims to do. 

“You still see people with their phone like this, driving,” said Waldenback with his hand held in front of his face. “I think the most important part here is awareness, campaigns and education. That's how you get to the bottom of this,” he added. 

Waldenback hopes Zutobi’s resources and lessons on the dangers of impaired driving, distracted driving, and more will promote education and awareness to ultimately reverse the rising trends.