Highway Fatalities Fall to Lowest Level Since 1950

Natalie Josef
September 9, 2010

The number of traffic-related deaths has dropped to a record-breaking low, according to U.S. Department of Transportation report, released today.

In 2009, highway deaths fell to 33,808, the lowest number since 1950, when the government began keeping track of traffic fatalities. The drop occurred even though travel increased in 2009 by 0.2 percent over 2008. Additionally, 2009 saw 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles—the lowest rate ever recorded.

While fatalities decreased in all categories, the drop was considerable for motorcycles. The number of deaths in 2008 was 5,312, marking an eleven-year rise. In 2009, there were 850 less motorcycle deaths, a decline of 16 percent.

So, why the drop?

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator David Strickland, “Today’s numbers reflect the tangible benefits of record seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns.”

Barbara Harsha, executive director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, agrees that more motorists are wearing seat belts and that there is better enforcement of drunk driving laws. She also points to enhanced vehicle safety features like side airbags and electronic stability control, which helps drivers prevent rollovers.

But the drop reflects the current economic zeitgeist as well. The U.S. also saw fewer highway deaths in the early 1980s and early 1990s. During economic downturns, Americans make fewer trips for fun, which are often the most deadly. The number of traffic-related deaths could rise when the economy improves.

Ray LaHood, Transportation Secretary, has also focused heavily on “distracted driving,” which is talking or texting on a cell phone while driving, among other things. He has specifically urged states to crack down on texting while driving by passing stricter laws.

“At the Department of Transportation, we are laser-focused on our top priority: safety,” said Secretary LaHood. “Today’s announcement shows that America’s roads are the safest they’ve ever been. But they must be safer. And we will not rest until they are.”

By the Numbers

  • Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans aged three to thirty-four
  • 85 percent of drivers use their seat belts
  • Alcohol-related fatalities account for a third of all traffic deaths
  • Traffic deaths declined in forty-one states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico
  • Florida had the biggest decline (422 fewer deaths), followed by Texas (405 fewer deaths)
  • Fatal crashes dropped nearly 10 percent in 2009
  • Alcohol-related traffic fatalities dropped 7.4 percent
  • All traffic accidents—fatal or not—declined by 5.3 percent
  • About 2.217 million people were injured in automobile accidents in 2009, down 5.5 percent from 2008


Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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