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Auto fatalities are rising at an alarming rate

Teen texting driving
Jason Doly | Getty Images

Driving in America is getting deadlier.

Despite an abundance of technologies designed to warn drivers of safety threats, the country last year recorded its steepest two-year increase in motor vehicle deaths in more than 50 years.

According to new estimates from the nonprofit National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people were killed in car crashes in the U.S. last year, marking a 14 percent increase over 2014. That increase represents a 6 percent lift over 2015.

"Those numbers are going up really rapidly," said Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council.

Though a large percentage of highway deaths are still linked to drunken driving and speeding, the increase calls into question the efficacy of popular safety technologies like lane departure warning systems, which are credited with keeping drivers from making potentially deadly mistakes behind the wheel.

In a new survey of more than 800 drivers whose vehicles include safety features 18 percent told the NSC they would prefer to shut off some of those technologies because they are confusing, irritating or give "false positives."

"It is the Wild West out there," Hersman said. "There is no standardization. There are oral warnings, visual warnings, some of these warnings are confusing to drivers and some of them, the functionality is really not there and so drivers are turning them off."

That's not to say drivers aren't interested in technologies that could keep them safer behind the wheel. Navdy, a technology start-up based in San Francisco, is capitalizing on that interest with a device that projects text messages, emails and other information onto a small screen in front of the driver.

The device, which costs $799, is designed to keep drivers from picking up their phones to text or call while behind the wheel. The device went on sale in November, and drivers have already logged millions of miles using the system's head up display, Navdy says.

"Instead of looking down at your car dashboard, looking at your center console, looking down at your phone, it's all brought together in one look-forward experience," said Doug Simpson, founder and CEO of Navdy.

Critics of heads-up displays say the technologies may keep drivers from picking up a phone, but the information displayed in front of the driver is still a distraction.

Simpson says that criticism ignores reality.

"People are going to make phone calls. They are going to use turn-by-turn navigation. They are going to listen to music," he said. "This is a far safer way to do those things in the car than the alternatives."