Fewer people and businesses in the Washington area are filing for bankruptcy protection this year, according to a study to be released today, another signal that the local economy appears to be improving.

In the District, Maryland and Virginia, a combined 351 businesses filed for bankruptcy in the first three months of 2004, according to data collected from courts by RegionalOneSource, a Baltimore company that collects economic and demographic data. That compares with 446 in the first quarter of 2003, a 21 percent drop.

That's considerably better than the United States as a whole, where business bankruptcies were down 8.3 percent in the same period. (That figure excludes New York state, where bankruptcies spiked dramatically, something researchers said was likely "an anomaly in the data.") The data include both types of bankruptcies -- Chapter 7, when companies shut their doors, and Chapter 11, when firms are protected from creditors so they can reorganize.

It isn't just businesses that have benefited from the rebounding economy, according to OneSource. There were 19,420 personal bankruptcies in the three jurisdictions during the first quarter, down 7 percent from 20,878 in the same period of 2003. Again, that's better than the national picture; nationwide, personal bankruptcies were down 1.8 percent.

The District, Maryland and Virginia have among the sharpest drops in bankruptcies of any region of the country. To OneSource chief executive Michael A. Conte, the sharper drop in corporate bankruptcies suggests that the recovery is so far benefiting businesses more than consumers.

-- Neil Irwin