Highway experts say a decline in deaths occurred last year in… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
U.S. traffic fatalities last year reached the lowest level in 55 years, dropping nearly 9 percent from the previous year and demonstrating that the continuing recession has at least one upside.
"It's a consistent pattern that the silver lining in any recession is a dip - and sometimes a significant dip - in highway deaths," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, about the federal government report Thursday showing that the number of fatalities in 2009 fell by an estimated 3,298 from 2008, putting last year's preliminary death count at 33,963.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report shows a downward trend that picked up steam as the U.S. economy slid into recession and Americans began driving fewer miles. Until 2008, the number of deaths on the nation's roads routinely surpassed 40,000.
The national drop is reflected in Maryland's preliminary totals. According to Vernon Betkey, chief of the State Highway Administration's safety office, the state's traffic fatality count for 2009 stands at 550, with a few more reports likely. He said the final figure is still expected to show a significant drop from the 591 recorded in 2008 - itself the lowest total in many years.
There are signs the trend could be continuing. As of Thursday morning, this year's preliminary count of Maryland traffic deaths stood at 47, down from 98 at this time last year, Betkey said.
In part, that reflects a decline in driving during February's twin snowstorms, but Betkey also credited state legislative initiatives such as increased drunken-driving penalties, red light cameras and speed cameras.
According to NHTSA, the decline nationally reflects in part a recession-related stagnation in the number of miles driven.
But the figures also indicate that other factors might be at work. For instance, the year's largest decline in fatalities occurred during the fourth quarter, when Americans apparently drove slightly more than in the same period of 2008.
The national rate of traffic deaths per vehicle mile traveled declined from 1.25 per 100 million miles traveled to 1.16 - the lowest level ever recorded. Vehicle miles traveled, which declined in 2008, increased by just 0.2 percent last year as economic activity slowly recovered.
Rader said that in an economic downturn, the first type of vehicle use to drop off is "optional driving," which he said is inherently riskier than routine daily trips.
"People may not be bar-hopping on the weekends," he said.
Sue Baker, a professor at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said the decline is "exactly what I would have expected" in view of the economic downturn.
She said that historically there has been a strong correlation between declines in industrial production and drops in the highway death rate.
Like Rader, she said the highest-risk driving, including cruising by teenagers, is most likely to decline in a recession.
"They may have less opportunity to drive when wallets are empty," she said.
Apart from economic factors, Rader said, the most important factors in cutting the number of fatalities has been the improved crash-worthiness of vehicles on American roads.
"The main thing driving that number in recent years has been safer cars," he said.
An NHTSA spokesman agreed, pointing to such advances as air bags, three-point seat belts, strengthened roofs, side-impact protections and crash-avoidance systems.
Betkey, who in addition to his state role heads the national Governors Highway Safety Association, said some of the credit should go to well-publicized multistate law enforcement efforts such as the "Click It or Ticket" seat belt campaign or the push against drunken driving called "Over the Limit, Under Arrest."
Baker said improvements in road design and advances in trauma medicine could also be playing roles in the decline.
But no factor compares with the economy, she and Rader said.
Rader said that as the recession eases, it's likely that the number of fatalities will increase.
"We just need to be cautious about jumping up and down when we look at the total number of deaths dropping," he said. "It's really not the result of any great traffic safety improvement, but it's more truly a result of our sour economy."
But Betkey said highway safety officials hope to keep the downward momentum going.
"We feel good, but we know we're not done," he said. "We know we still have a bit of work to do. Our ultimate goal is really zero."