Despite gains in car safety, 2015 saw the largest percentage rise in motor vehicle deaths in the past 50 years, according to the National Safety Council. Cheaper gas and a stronger economy were likely key factors in the rise, the nonprofit group says.

The figures are preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council, which says it currently estimates that last year, "38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads, and 4.4 million were seriously injured, meaning 2015 likely was the deadliest driving year since 2008."

In its report, the group lists four states that saw the biggest percentage rises in traffic deaths:

  • Oregon — 27 percent
  • Georgia — 22 percent
  • Florida — 18 percent
  • South Carolina — 16 percent

Only 13 states saw their fatality rates go down; among them:

  • New Mexico — 20 percent
  • Kansas — 7 percent
  • New Jersey — 2 percent

"These numbers are serving notice: Americans take their safety on the roadways for granted," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "Engage your defensive driving skills and stay alert so we can reverse this trend in 2016."

The findings reverse a general downward trend that in 2014 culminated in a record low of 1.07 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

In its own early estimates that were released late in 2015, NHTSA reported seeing a 3.5 percent rise in vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. But it also said the fatality rate — the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled — was rising at a slightly higher pace of 4.4 percent.

Factors such as job growth and low gas prices can also have particular impact, NHTSA's experts say, because they tend to be associated not only with more miles on the road but with more leisure driving and more miles logged by young drivers.

Both the NSC and NHTSA urge several steps to make driving safer, from cutting incidents of drunk driving to using seatbelts and avoiding driving when fatigued or distracted.

The rise in fatalities came despite reports last year that found marked improvements in vehicle safety.

For instance, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that when looking at 2011 models through the 2012 calendar year, driver deaths per million registered vehicle years fell to 28; just three years earlier, the driver death rate was 48.

A record nine car models recorded driver death rates of zero in the IIHS study, which attributed the gains to safety features such as electronic stability control and design improvements that made cars safer in front-end crashes.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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