WASHINGTON – Traffic deaths have plummeted across the United States to levels not seen in more than a half century, spurred by technology, more safety-conscious drivers and tougher enforcement of drunken driving laws.
The Transportation Department said Thursday that traffic deaths fell 9.7 percent in 2009 to 33,808, the lowest number since 1950. In 2008, an estimated 37,423 people died on the highways.
Government and auto safety experts attributed the improvement to more people buckling up, side air bags and anti-rollover technology in more vehicles and a focus in many states on curbing drinking and driving. Economic conditions were also a factor.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the new data "a landmark achievement for public health and safety" but cautioned that too many people are killed on the road each year. "While we've come a long way," he said, "we have a long distance yet to travel."
Forty-one states, the federal enclave of Washington and Puerto Rico saw reductions in highway fatalities, led by Florida with 422 fewer deaths and Texas, down 405.
The rate of deaths per 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) traveled also dropped to a record low. It fell to 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles in 2009, compared with 1.26 the year before.
Year-to-year declines in highway deaths have occurred in previous economic downturns, when fewer people are out on the road. Traffic deaths decreased in the early 1980s and early 1990s when difficult economic conditions led many drivers to cut back on discretionary travel.
Last year's reduction in fatalities came even as the estimated number of miles traveled by motorists in 2009 increased 0.2 percent over 2008 levels.
Barbara Harsha, executive director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said the new data was "particularly encouraging given that estimated vehicle miles traveled actually increased slightly in 2009, thus exposing the public to greater risk on our roadways."
LaHood said the weak economy was a contributing factor as many Americans chose not to go out to bars and restaurants after work or on the weekend.
But he said many motorists are more safety conscious behind the wheel. About 85 percent of Americans wear seat belts while benefiting from safety advances found in today's cars and trucks.
Side air bags that protect the head and midsection are becoming standard equipment on many new vehicles. Electronic stability control, which helps motorists avoid rollover crashes, is more common on new cars and trucks, while some luxury models have lane departure warnings and other safety features.