Car accidents rise with the economyAt their annual conference in January, auto insurers actually worried about whether theirs was a "shrinking business."

All newer vehicles come equipped with "black boxes," which tell police and courts what really happened in an auto accident, providing them with the proper place to put the blame. BMW has already introduced autos that are truly auto -- they drive themselves.

Voluntary vehicle monitors in cars, such as Progressive's Snapshot, which tell insurers if the driver is going too fast or braking too hard, are catching on with motorists lured by the possibility of lower rates for better driving. Progressive is the 4th largest auto insurer in the nation, but it's Snapshot program is now the 20th largest car insurer on its own, with more than a million members, according to analysts.

But most importantly, until recently serious car accidents were trending sharply downward. I repeat, until recently.

This trend is not your friend

The latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tell a different story. During the first nine months of 2012 there was more than a 7 percent increase in motor vehicle traffic fatalities. And that trend will probably continue when Thanksgiving and Christmas driving season statistics are added in. We might have as many as 34,500 deaths for 2012, setting the cause of car safety back at least three years.

It's still too early to draw any absolute conclusions. These are preliminary statistics and only cover fatalities rather than all serious accidents. An NHTSA spokeswoman points out that the 7.1 percent increase, while significant, is coming off the 2011 baseline when traffic deaths were at a 60-year low.

What it does show is that, in spite of their griping, car insurers don't appear to be going out of business anytime soon. So we'll see a lot more of the gecko, Flo, Mayhem man and all the other weird insurance ads in 2013.

'Roadmap' for motorists

But the real question is what caused this turnaround? Why are traffic deaths on the rise despite the whiz bang technology designed to make us safer?

"The reverse in the trend of declining highway crash deaths is likely related in part to the economic upswing," says Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which just released a "roadmap" showing which states were doing the most to keep motorists safe.

"Historically, when our country has experienced a recession, there has been a reduction in crash fatalities," says Gillan. "When the economy rebounds, more people are buying cars, more discretionary driving is occurring and unfortunately more people are dying in crashes."

'The best of times'

To paraphrase Dickens in reverse, the worst of times is the best of times -- at least to be on the road. An economic recovery leads to more traffic jams, harassed and angry drivers, speeders, drunk driving and teens texting and talking on cellphones.

And, in spite of the ongoing fiscal cliff, motorists are now buying that big new SUV, pickup or car that they've always wanted. A December surge pushed light vehicle sales up to 14.5 million, the highest in five years.

So auto insurance companies need not fear. Automakers will keep improving vehicles, but insurers will keep making money -- so long as people act like people.