Traffic Deaths Fell in '08, Study Says

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009; C04

America's roads have become less deadly for people who drive trucks, sport-utility vehicles and automobiles, but those who leave the smallest carbon footprint -- motorcyclists and bike riders -- are dying in greater numbers, according to the latest federal highway data.

In the Washington region, results were mixed, as road deaths decreased in Northern Virginia and the District but rose in several suburban Maryland counties. Fairfax and Charles counties recorded notable drops. Montgomery and Prince George's counties reported slight increases.

Overall, the region recorded 57 fewer traffic deaths in 2008 than during the previous year, according to annual statistics compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Local officials attribute the improvement in part to better targeted law enforcement.

"We've focused our dollars on areas where we've had the highest fatalities," said John Saunders, director of the highway safety office in Virginia, where there was a 20 percent drop in fatalities statewide.

Nationally, traffic fatalities fell by almost 10 percent in 2008. The total number of deaths, 37,261, was the lowest since 1961, and the number continued to drop in the first quarter of this year, the federal report says. All but four states -- Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming -- recorded a decline.

High gas prices and the sour economy have kept some drivers off the roads, but according to Barbara Harsha of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a coalition of state highway safety offices, "some of the reduction is due to the high-enforcement programs."

"We've got the 'Click It or Ticket' program nationwide, impaired-driving checkpoints, better cars and better highways," she said.

Although alcohol-related deaths declined, alcohol still was a factor in more than 25 percent of all traffic fatalities. Failure to wear a seat belt played a part in more than 30 percent of all deaths.

Fatalities in passenger cars nationwide also dropped 12 percent; SUV and pickup truck deaths were down 14 percent; and large truck deaths decreased 16 percent. Bicycle fatalities were up 2 percent, and motorcycle fatalities climbed for the 11th consecutive year, jumping 2 percent.

"The [poor] economy has more people riding motorcycles," said Ed Moreland of the American Motorcyclist Association. "Their better fuel economy and ease of parking certainly make them more attractive."

The desire to economize probably put thousands of less-experienced motorcyclists on the road last year, according to Richard Cole of the Texas Transportation Institute, a research group that studies traffic nationally and in Texas.

"What you had when gasoline spiked is a whole lot more people riding who don't know what they're doing," Cole said.

Both Moreland and Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, pointed to the competition for road space and distracted drivers as causes for the uptick in fatalities.

Clarke said the number of bike deaths has fluctuated over the years.

"While the increase is regrettable, it hasn't set off any alarm bells," Clarke said. "We're not in the same situation as the motorcycle community, where there's been a steady increase."

Another traffic study released Wednesday showed the Washington region second only to Los Angeles as the most congested major metropolitan area in the country. Coming on the heels of that report, the county-by-county statistics in the new NHTSA study make clear that driving on urban streets is less dangerous than in the outer suburbs or on rural roads.

When calculated by deaths per 100,000 of population, Los Angeles (7.2), the District (5.7), Fairfax (2.9) and Montgomery (5.4) rank far below less-populous places such as Imperial (28.1) and Sutter (18.4) counties in California; Caroline (33.4), Kent (24.9) and Talbot (19.3) counties in Maryland; and Lee (21.3) and Shenandoah (27) counties in Virginia.

The numbers creep up in Washington's outer suburbs: Spotsylvania had 11.7 deaths per 100,000, and Frederick had 9.3.

"It's obviously more dangerous driving in exurban and rural areas," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. "In the city, you're not driving as far. You're driving at slower speeds, and you're driving down local streets."

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