New federal traffic safety data show that the number of people killed on U.S. roads and highways last year was the lowest since 1961.
The 37,261 deaths represented a 9.7 percent drop from 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). About 2.35 million people were injured last year in motor vehicle accidents - down from 2.49 million in 2007 - marking the ninth straight yearly decline.
In Missouri, the total traffic fatalities fell to 960 last year from 992 in 2007, or 3.2 percent. Fatalities stemming from alcohol-impaired drivers also fell in Missouri last year.
“While the number of highway deaths in America has decreased, we still have a long way to go,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said the drop in highway deaths is welcome news, but the trend can be traced to the economic recession. During tough times, people drive less - especially for discretionary trips - and therefore get involved in fewer accidents.
“Although it is always heartening to know fewer people died and suffered injuries in motor vehicle crashes, we cannot rely on poor economic conditions to ensure major progress in traffic safety,” said Judith Lee Stone, president of the safety group. “Especially because historical trends tell us the numbers will reverse as the economy improves.”
Stone said historic data show similar drops in highway deaths when the U.S. has lapsed into recession. Her group supports legislation requiring primary seat-belt enforcement in all states, better graduated license laws for teens, and laws requiring ignition interlock devices after the first conviction for impaired driving.
While people are driving less, it doesn’t tell the whole story - in fact, fatality figures are dropping faster than the number of miles Americans are driving, said NHTSA spokeswoman Ellen Martin. More people are buckling up, cars are safer and there’s greater awareness of the effects of alcohol on driving.
Preliminary numbers show that highway deaths continue to be dropping through the first quarter of 2009.