Early figures suggest number of traffic fatalities fell in 2013


Traffic fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (Source: National Center for Health Statistics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Center for Statistics and Analysis)

The number of Americans killed in traffic accidents has declined to the lowest point since the 1940s in several states, according to early estimates reported by state officials across the country, and automotive experts are giving credit to new safety measures and education campaigns.

In Iowa, there were 317 fatalities in 2013, the state Department of Transportation said; it was the lowest number of traffic deaths since 1944. Preliminary estimates show 982 motorists and pedestrians died in Ohio in 2013, the lowest number since the state began keeping records in 1936. In New Jersey, state police reported 542 traffic deaths on highways and main streets in 2013, another all-time low.

Eighty-five people were killed in Wyoming traffic accidents last year, the state Highway Patrol said Monday. The last time there were fewer than 100 deaths in Wyoming was in 1945. The South Carolina Highway Patrol said traffic deaths dropped by 125 over 2012 figures, a decrease of 17 percent.

National statistics, compiled by the Department of Transportation, won’t be released until later this year. But the early data is encouraging: In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the number of fatalities for the first half of the year had declined 4.2 percent [pdf] from the same period in 2012.

“We’ve been trending below last year’s [fatality numbers] since the very beginning of 2013,” said Lt. Anne Ralston, a spokeswoman for the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “Our alcohol-related fatal crashes are down significantly, [and] our safety belt voluntary compliance is increasing.”

The falling fatality numbers are part of a national trend that experts attribute to higher safety standards in new cars, and the increased use of seat belts among both drivers and passengers. Traffic fatalities increased between 2011 and 2012, to 33,561 nationally, but that was the first increase since 2005, when there were 39,252 fatal crashes. The number of crashes has steadily dropped every year since.

At the same time, the number of vehicles in the United States has increased significantly. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported there were 253 million registered vehicles in the United States in 2011, compared with just 161 million in 1980, and 225 million in 2000.

Sharon Gilmartin, a research analyst at AAA, said younger drivers and passengers are less likely to be involved in fatal accidents than in years past. The number of fatalities among adolescents between age 10-15 fell by almost 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, the last year for which federal statistics are available, while the number of teens who died in accidents fell by 5.7 percent.

Compared with the 2005 spike, deaths are down dramatically across the board, including among pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and passengers. Only among motorcyclists have traffic fatalities increased.

The long-term declines, Gilmartin said in an e-mail, “can be attributed to a combination of safer cars, safer roads, and more educated drivers.”

“AAA believes that a comprehensive approach including strong laws, visible enforcement, smart use of technology and effective public education is the best strategy for saving” lives, Gilmartin said.

Not every state saw their traffic fatalities fall. In Illinois, there were 973 traffic fatalities last year, a 2 percent increase over the 2012 numbers; still, it was the fifth year in a row that fewer than 1,000 people were killed on Illinois roadways. In Texas, early indications suggest the number of fatalities are on the rise, too. There hasn’t been a day without a fatal traffic accident since Nov. 7, 2000, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Part of Ohio’s success in cutting down on traffic accidents, Ralston said, lies in deploying limited police resources intelligently. In Ohio, that means focusing on metropolitan counties like Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton, home to the state’s three largest cities, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Traffic fatalities were down 32 percent in Hamilton County, Ralston said.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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