Traffic fatalities in the District have dropped 35 percent after several years of increases, a shift city officials say may be attributed in part to stepped-up enforcement of the city's unpopular jaywalking laws.

As of Sept. 4, 35 traffic-related deaths had occurred in the District, down from 55 at the same time last year, according to department records. Personal injuries from traffic accidents also were down roughly 8 percent, from 4,198 between January and September last year to 3,863 for the same period this year.

"I think it's been a combination of things," said Capt. David P. Baker, head of the D.C. police department's traffic enforcement branch. "But I do think enforcement has had something to do with it. Sustained enforcement is recognized by the public. {But} if you tell them something's going to happen, and it doesn't, they notice that" too.

By the end of last year, the number of traffic fatalities had reached 75, nine more than the previous high of 66 in 1984. Compared with other cities of comparable size, the District ranked among the highest in traffic deaths, Baker said. St. Louis, with a similar population, had 51 fatalities last year; Seattle had 32.

Thirty-one of last year's fatalities, or 40 percent, were pedestrians, 20 of them killed by this time last year. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have died, including a 42-year-old Alexandria woman who was struck by a tour bus as she walked across the intersection of 17th and L streets NW, and an 8-year-old Northwest girl who was killed when a car rammed into a pole that then hit her in the head.

Police say they have clamped down on enforcement of jaywalking laws mainly at busy intersections with a lot of foot traffic -- such as Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW.

The fine for jaywalking is $10.

"Everytime we do it, it's extremely unpopular," Baker said. "It's clearly one that's controversial, both with officers and with citizens, but whenever we do this, pedestrian fatalities drop drastically. If people realized that, they'd understand why we do it."

To make his point, Baker recalls the years 1984 through 1986, when fatalities dipped from 66 to 62 to 47, respectively. After 1984, when 34 pedestrians were killed, Baker's branch stepped up its enforcement of jaywalking laws. Twenty-five pedestrians died in 1985, 14 in 1986.

But in 1987, pedestrian deaths soared to 30. "We went back to normal enforcement," Baker said, "and you see what happened."

More jaywalking citations aren't the only factor in the decrease, the captain said. He said he is also convinced that fewer drunken drivers may be on the roads as a result of education efforts and designated-driver campaigns by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Eleven alcohol-related traffic deaths have occurred this year, compared with 18 at this time last year.

"Enforcement doesn't work alone and public education doesn't work alone," said Baker, who has been in his job since 1984, "but they work well together."

Baker said excessive speed, alcohol and inattention remain the most frequent factors in traffic accidents. But most non-pedestrians killed in traffic accidents this year were not wearing seat belts. Of five drivers killed, three were not using seat belts. Of 10 passengers killed, eight were not wearing seat belts.

In the District, not wearing a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning violators cannot be fined unless they are stopped for another reason, such as speeding.

Baker said officers in his branch hand out literature about the benefits of seat belts at sobriety checkpoints and give speeches at schools.

They also use The Convincer.

Baker is particularly fond of this public education tool, a device that simulates the effects of a 5- to 7-mph crash on people not wearing seat belts. Those witnessing the demonstration usually are surprised at the jolt that occurs at such slow speeds, Baker said.

"A lot of people think 25, 30 miles per hour isn't very fast," he said, "but you can be fatally injured. Speeding is a relative term."