By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 7:14 PM
Deaths on America's highways have plunged to their lowest level in 60 years, as smarter designs make streets and vehicles safer and aggressive campaigns are waged against drunk and distracted drivers.
The number of people killed dropped to 33,808 in 2009, a total 3,615 below the previous year. It was the lowest total since 1950 and marked the fourth consecutive year highway fatalities have declined since 2005, when 39,252 people died. Motorcycle deaths were down by 16 percent, the first decline in 11 years.
The fatality count was lower in the District, Maryland and Virginia, and all but nine other states, according to a report issued Thursday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which compiles annual statistics gathered from each state.
The District recorded a 15 percent decrease in fatalities; deaths were down 7.4 percent in Maryland and 8.2 percent in Virginia. Maryland had a 12 percent increase in drunken driving deaths, a total of 162, while Virginia's drunken driving fatality rate decreased by 12 percent. In the District, one more person died as a result of drunken driving, a total of nine deaths.
Most of the increases were in small or rural states, five of them with weak seat-belt enforcement laws, and three have maximum speed limits of 75 mph.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that even though the hint of an economic upturn saw more drivers on the road than in 2008, fatalities continued to drop.
"We attribute the progress to a host of factors," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, "including increased seat belt use, stronger enforcement of drunk driving laws, better roads, safer vehicles and an increasingly well-coordinated approach to safety among state stakeholders and the federal government. Secretary LaHood's focus on distracted driving has brought an unprecedented focus to behavioral highway safety, and as a result, lives are being saved."