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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

National Traffic Fatalities On the Decline

Road Deaths Go Down as Gas Prices Go Up

National Safety Council officials recently reported a 9 percent drop in motor vehicle deaths overall through May 2008, compared with the first five months of 2007. This includes drops of 18 percent in March and 14 percent in April.

The Associated Press obtained preliminary figures showing that some states have reported declines of 20 percent or more. According to the council, thirty-one states have seen declines of at least 10 percent, and only eight states have reported an increase.

Road fatalities are falling as Americans cut back sharply on driving because of record-high gas prices.

Fewer people on the road mean fewer deaths. "That shows a good thing coming out of this crisis," said Gus Williams, 52, of Albany, Ga., who frequently drives to northern Ohio. He also noticed that many motorists are driving slower.

The federal government reported a trend that began in November 2007: miles traveled fell 1.8 percent in April compared with a year earlier.

Experts say a faltering economy and high fuel prices have reduced the number of road fatalities quickly.

John Ulczycki, the council's executive director for transportation safety, said, "When the economy is in the tank and fuel prices are high, you typically see a decline in miles driven and traffic deaths."

Other factors cited include such measures as police increasing their vigilant capture of speeders and drunken drivers, as well as improved teen-licensing programs, safer vehicles, and harsh winter weather that kept many drivers indoors. The Governors Highway Safety Association also reports that seat belt use is probably at record levels, possibly topping out at 90 percent in several states when figures are tallied later this year.

The last time road deaths fell this rapidly and sharply was during the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo, when deaths fell 17 percent, from about 55,100 to 46,000; and when states raised the drinking age to 21 in 1982-83, when fatalities fell 11 percent, from about 49,300 to 44,000.

Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said half of the decline in road deaths during the 1970s was attributed to high gas prices. The remainder was linked to the lowering of freeway speed limits to 55 mph. Hurley said high gas prices have helped curb drunken driving, too.

Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia has said perhaps Congress will consider reimposing a national speed limit.

Hurley said that regardless of states' new safety measures, it is obvious that motorists are cutting discretionary travel and reducing the kind of late-night outings for alcohol that often lead to deadly accidents, just like in the early 1970s.

Maj. Daniel Lonsdorf of the Wisconsin State Patrol said, "People are going home early or stopping by a store and buying a case of beer and taking it home."

For about 15 years, fatality rates have remained relatively flat, totaling 42,642 in 2006, the last year for which complete figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are accessible.

Regulators say a better indicator of road fatalities is the number per 100 million miles traveled, a rate that has been on the decline even as Americans drive more. In 2006, that figure fell to its lowest level: 1.42 deaths.

Yet the drop-off this year is even greater and appears to be accelerating.

Indiana traffic deaths are down 26 percent and on pace to surpass the lowest level since the state first began keeping records 18 years ago: 792 fatalities in 2002.

Ohio's rate is off 20 percent, and the state reported just six deaths over the Memorial Day weekend, the fewest in 38 years. Illinois' total also is off 20 percent, and Wisconsin is down about 30 percent.

Early reports show that death rates are down 20 percent in Tennessee, 22 percent in New Jersey, 13 percent in Washington state, 11 percent in Florida and 21 percent in New Mexico, where the state effort to cut alcohol-involved fatalities has resulted in a 35 percent decline in such deaths so far this year, from 83 to 54.

After the 1970s energy crisis, motor vehicle fatalities gradually increased in the 1980s as gas prices dropped and speed limits began to rise again.

But if oil futures contracts are any indication, the number of fatalities may continue falling. Despite big decreases in recent weeks, most energy traders do not foresee a long-term decline in prices.

"People aren't driving as much. We're definitely seeing a difference" in crashes, said Pam Fischer, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Safety.

Online courses are now available to educate drivers on the rules of the road and the latest defensive driving techniques. Try it today!

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