Highway deaths drop to their lowest level since the 1950s

The number of people dying on the highways is the lowest since the 1950s despite runaway Toyotas and teen drivers texting.

The U.S. Transportation Department said Thursday that its estimates show total traffic deaths declined nearly 9 percent in 2009 — to 33,963. That’s the lowest toll since 1954. In 2008, an estimated 37,261 people died on the roadways.

The newest numbers fit into a trend of decreases since 2005, when an estimated 43,510 people were killed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration credits the decline to more people wearing seat belts, programs to discourage drunken driving and cars built with better safety features.

A sour economy that dampened travel also likely helped.

Side air bags are becoming standard equipment on many new vehicles. And electronic stability control, which helps motorists avoid rollover crashes, is increasingly common on new cars and trucks.

“We knew that those technologies would be reducing fatalities,” said Anne McCartt, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s senior vice president for research. She also said an increase in seat belt use could be a factor. Seat belt use rose to 84 percent in 2009, partly because of state crackdowns on drivers not using seat belts.

States have also pushed tougher laws to reduce drunken driving.

In spite of the progress, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cautioned that “there are still far too many people dying in traffic accidents. Drivers need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their focus on the road.”

The federal government has sought to curb distracted driving, urging states to adopt stringent laws against sending text messages from behind the wheel, as well as other distractions.

Part of the decrease in fatalities is credited to the economic downturn, which has fewer people out on the road. This theory is in line with similar patterns from the early 1980s and early 1990s, when difficult economic, conditions led many drivers to cut back on discretionary travel, and traffic deaths decreased.

The number of miles traveled by U.S. drivers in 2009 grew by 6.6 billion, or 0.2 percent, according to preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration, But this follows a dip in vehicle miles traveled in 2008 and 2007, when the economy was tanking.

Still, safety officials say the rate of deaths per 100 million miles traveled also dropped to a record low. It fell to 1.16 in 2009, compared with the past record low of 1.25 in 2008.

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