People died on U.S. highways at an alarming rate last year, caused by some of the usual suspects: speeding, drunken driving, and failure to wear seat belts, according to the latest federal statistics.

Motorcycle, pedestrian, and bicycle deaths accounted for more than a third of the increase, with pedestrian and bicycle deaths hitting quarter-century highs.

"The problem is clear, but so are the solutions," said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group. "Too many states lack too many safety laws, and that is contributing to this public health crisis. At the federal level, critical safety standards that would make our highways safer for everyone are delayed or ignored."

She called the numbers "appalling but not surprising." 

The number of highway fatalities rose to 37,461 last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s final tally released Friday. That’s a 5.6 percent increase from the 35,485 deaths in 2015, after a 8.4 percent increase in 2014, the highest total since 2008.

The reasons behind the increases are not immediately clear, though some experts point out that Americans are driving more miles each year, and motorcyclists, in particular, are getting older. 

On the brighter side, more Americans were buckling up. The national seat-belt usage rate hit 90.1 percent, up from 86.7 percent two years ago.

And deaths due to distracted driving fell slightly to 3,450, a 2.2 percent decrease.

Wear Your Seat Belt

Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, pushes for government policies and regulations that make vehicles safer for consumers to operate.

CU believes that automakers should provide forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, which have been proved to reduce crashes and save lives, standard on all base models.

Despite recent advances in vehicle safety technology, simply wearing your seat belt is still one of the best and simplest ways to survive a vehicle crash.

Last year, there were 10,428 deaths of unbelted vehicle occupants in 2016, 4.6 percent more than the previous year. About 78 percent of people who survived otherwise-fatal wrecks were wearing seat belts, compared with 13 percent who were unbelted, NHTSA reported.

Over time, it’s getting relatively safer to ride in a passenger vehicle versus being on a motorcycle or walking or biking.

In the past decade, the percentage of all highway fatalities involving people in cars and light trucks slipped to 64 percent from 70 percent.

But for motorcyclists, pedestrians, and bicyclists, the trend is the opposite, increasing to 32 percent in 2016 from 26 percent the year before. There were nearly 6,000 pedestrians killed last year, the highest total since 1990. Bicycle deaths hit a 25-year high at 840.

To improve safety, NHTSA says pedestrians should use sidewalks when available, or walk facing traffic and stay alert. Pedestrians should be predictable, cross at crosswalks, and try to make eye contact with approaching drivers, the safety agency says.

Drivers should look for pedestrians everywhere and not assume they're where they're supposed to be, NHTSA says. Drivers shouldn't ever pass a stopped car at a crosswalk, because the car may be stopped to allow pedestrians to get by.

NHTSA has noted a long-term trend in older motorcyclists, and that's one factor in the fatality increase.

Over a 10-year period ending in 2015, the number of deaths among riders 40 and over increased 17 percent, to just over half of all motorcycle deaths.

Also, fewer states require riders to wear helmets than in the past — 19 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory helmet laws. In those states, 8 percent of those killed aren't wearing helmets, compared with 58 percent in states without helmet laws. 

NHTSA’s key measure for highway safety, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, also increased, from 1.15 to 1.18. That means roads are more dangerous even after factoring in that Americans drove 2.2 percent more miles last year.

In another closely watched safety measure, there were 4,317 deaths involving large trucks, a 5.4 percent increase since 2015. Of those fatalities, the number of those who died traveling inside trucks grew by 8.6 percent.

NHTSA estimates that seat belts, air bags, and other restraints saved 17,752 lives last year. It estimates that fatal traffic crashes cost the economy $242 billion, and that there was $836 billion in total societal harm, including worse quality of life and lost household productivity.

CORRECTION: This version has been updated to clarify that the U.S. highway fatality rate reported by NHTSA for 2016 was 1.18 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.