The number of people killed on American highways dropped to a 60-year low in 2009, thanks in large part to safer cars, safer roads, better-trained young drivers and a limping economy.
Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Transportation Thursday put the highway death toll at 33,808, a drop of nearly 10 percent from 2008.
In Michigan, the falloff was even steeper: 871 people died in state traffic crashes last year, an 11 percent reduction from 2008's death toll of 980.
It was the state's lowest total since 1924, when 863 people died in traffic crashes, even though there are 10 times as many vehicles on Michigan's roadways today as when Calvin Coolidge was president.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood touted the big reduction -- nearly 4,000 fewer deaths nationwide last year -- and noted that Americans drove slightly more miles in 2009 than in 2008.
"It's not an excuse to rest on our laurels," LaHood cautioned. "Nearly 34,000 motor vehicle fatalities on America's roads is still unacceptable."
The national decline is dramatic in light of the massive growth in vehicles, drivers and miles traveled during the last 60 years.
In 1950, 33,186 people died on U.S. roads with 50 million vehicles and 62 million drivers. Today, there are more than 210 million drivers and 250 million cars on American roads.
Last year's statistics represent the lowest fatality and injury rates recorded: 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009, compared with 1.26 deaths for 2008. By contrast, the rate in the 1950s was around 6 deaths per 100 million miles traveled.
Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, attributed the improvement in traffic statistics "to a host of factors, including increased seat belt use, stronger enforcement of drunken driving laws, better roads, safer vehicles and an increasingly well-coordinated approach to safety."
But the automakers also claimed a share of the credit.
"What we are seeing now is the payoff from years of manufacturer-driven safety improvements, like anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control systems coupled with high visibility enforcement safety efforts by law enforcement," said Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President and CEO Dave McCurdy, the group that represents Detroit's Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp. and seven others.
In 1950, the government required no vehicle safety features.
Only one automaker, Nash, offered seat belts -- as an option. And drunken driving laws were much less stringent.
Vehicle interiors were unpadded and so dangerous that Dr. C. Hunter Shelden wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1955 that "it is surprising anyone escapes from an automobile accident without serious injury."
Today, nearly 85 percent of all Americans wear seat belts. Government regulators in recent years mandated side air bags, anti-rollover technology and stronger vehicle roofs. Safety also has become a top concern of prospective car and truck buyers, pressuring automakers further to improve their products.
Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Nicole Nason also attributed part of the improvement in last year's highway death toll to better training of young drivers, through graduated driver licenses that give them more rights as they gain experience. Michigan is among the states with a graduated licensing program.
"The department and the states' efforts to pass and enforce graduated driver licenses are working," Nason said, noting that more states are placing restrictions on young drivers at night, a time of high risk.
Nonetheless, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for those between the ages of three and 34, costing society more than an estimated $99 billion annually.
LaHood said the weak economy is a plus for highway safety, because some people no longer can afford to go out for fun after work -- if they're working.
Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2009 declined 7.4 percent to 10,839, compared with the 11,711 reported in 2008. Overall, 33 states and Puerto Rico experienced a decline in the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2009 compared with 2008.
In Michigan, alcohol-related traffic deaths declined 13 percent in 2009 from the year before.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland also cited the economy in noting that among vehicle categories, big trucks reported the largest decline in traffic deaths: 26 percent. Fewer trucks are on the roads, he said, due to depressed commerce.
Both city and country driving were less hazardous last year than the year before, but traffic death rates in cities improved more.
Urban traffic deaths fell 12 percent, while rural traffic deaths fell by 8 percent.
Motorcycle fatalities in 2009 broke a string of 11 years of annual increases, falling by 16 percent, to 4,462, from 5,312 in 2008.
Like fatalities, the number of traffic-related injuries is declining. Nearly 900,000 fewer people were injured in car crashes last year than 20 years ago.
The number of people injured in crashes in 2009 dropped 5.5 percent to 2.2 million from the previous year. Pedestrian deaths fell 7.3 percent to 4,092, and pedestrian injuries dropped 14 percent, to 59,000.
LaHood, while touting the improved fatality numbers, bypassed an opportunity to call on Congress to pass comprehensive safety legislation. House and Senate Democrats have separate plans, developed in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.'s worldwide recall of more than nine million vehicles.
The bills would give regulators more power to order speedy recalls, set safety requirements, hike fines on automakers and boost the number of personnel reviewing safety issues.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is among those urging changes in the safety bills before Congress.
Even before the new statistics were released Thursday, possibly relieving some of the pressure for passage, the measures were in doubt -- and time running out -- before members of Congress go home to campaign for re-election.
LaHood said approval of auto safety legislation would be "good for the work that we do."
But some think NHTSA should focus on other big issues, especially speeding and running red lights.
Last month, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety criticized the agency for focusing too much on sudden acceleration and distracted driving.
"The hyper visibility of these issues diverts attention from initiatives that have far greater potential to save lives," said IIHS President Adrian Lund.
"We need to look for the next big idea like air bags and get it done."
That brought an angry retort Thursday from NHTSA's Strickland. He said he "vehemently" disagrees with the assertion.
"Our efforts have been as broad-based as they have ever been -- more aggressive than they have been in a very long time," Strickland said.
Article by David Shepherdson, Detroit News
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