Silver Lining for Bad Economy: Traffic Deaths Drop

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; 1:43 PM

The upside of near-10 percent unemployment is that there are fewer cars on the road, and the number of traffic fatalities hit an all-time low in the first six months of this year.

From January to June, an estimated 16,626 people died in highway crashes, a 7 percent drop from the same period in 2008, according to figures released Friday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Who would have thought that a bad economy would save our lives?" said John B. Townsend II, manager of public and government affairs at the American Automobile Association. "If this trend holds throughout the year, car traffic fatalities will have declined for the seventh year in a row."

A quirk of the calendar made February the month this year that showed the sharpest decline in the number of deaths, and gave insight into the number of daily highway deaths nationwide. Because 2008 was a leap year, last February there were 95 deaths Feb. 29, boosting the total for that month. This year, with one day fewer, February had a 16 percent drop, double the declines shown in January and March.

The number of highway fatalities last year, 37,261, was the lowest since 1961. All but four states -- Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming -- recorded declines in 2008.

Some counties in the Maryland suburbs were an exception in 2008, with Montgomery, Howard, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and St. Mary's recording slight increases. Although Arlington reported an increase of two deaths, the rest of suburban Virginia saw traffic fatalities drop, with Loudoun and Fairfax recording sharp declines. Deaths in the District dropped as well.

Projected figures for the first six months of the year nationwide also show a record-low fatality rate of 1.15 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.23 deaths during the same period in 2008.

Barbara L. Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, pointed to surveys that show that the decline in deaths has been greater than the decline in the total number of miles that Americans drive.

"Therefore, we suggest that while the economy is a factor, it is not the only factor," Harsha said. "Highway deaths are likely decreasing for multiple reasons. These include: record seat belt use, increased enforcement of drunk driving and seat belt laws, improvements in vehicle safety, safer roadways and the economy."

Harsha said the economy has cut down on the number of "optional" trips taken by many drivers.

"These include trips taken by teens and older drivers -- groups among the most likely to be in crashes," she said.

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