The faltering U.S. economy continued to benefit highway safety during 2008. Deaths in motor vehicle crashes, which fell 3 percent in 2007, slid another 10 percent last year to 37,261 as motorists cut back on trips and the type of driving they do. This is the lowest toll since 1975, the first year the federal government starting keeping national records on fatal crashes.
Still, crashes remain the biggest killer of Americans 3 to 36 years old. The cost to society exceeds $200 billion each year. Alcohol, speed, nonuse of safety belts, and other risky behavior contribute to the toll.
Since 1975 the rate of motor vehicle crash deaths per 100,000 population in the United States has declined 41 percent even as the population has grown. During the past decade, the death rate increased for motorcyclists but decreased for passenger vehicle occupants and pedestrians and was essentially unchanged for bicyclists and people in large trucks.
Motorcyclist deaths hit a record 5,091 in 2008, representing 14 percent of all crash deaths. In contrast, fewer passenger vehicle occupants (25,428) died in crashes in 2008 than in any year since the government began record keeping. Motorcyclist deaths have more than doubled since 1997. Among riders killed last year, half were 40 years or older. This is up from 9 percent of all rider deaths in 1982 and 15 percent in 1991.
In 2008, 4,008 people died in large truck crashes. This is fewer than in any year since 1975. Truck occupant deaths have fallen 55 percent since 1979 when they hit a record. During the same period, passenger vehicle occupant deaths fell 35 percent.
Last year, 4,054 people ages 13-19 died in crashes. This is 19 percent fewer than the year before and 54 percent fewer than in 1975. Boys account for about 2 of every 3 teens killed.
Deaths among kids in motor vehicle crashes have declined since 1975, but crashes still cause about 1 of every 3 injury deaths among children younger than 13 and are the leading cause of death for this age group. A total of 1,045 children died in crashes in 2008, an 18 percent decline from 2007 and a 71 percent drop from 1975.
Crashes account for fewer than 1 percent of fatalities among people 70 and older. Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death. In 2008, 4,268 people in this age group died — 27 percent fewer than the peak in 1997. The per-capita death rate among older people has dropped 40 percent since 1975 and now is at its lowest.
The number of deaths of fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers with blood alcohol concentrations 0.08 percent or higher fell 10 percent from 2007 to 6,332 in 2008. This is in line with the overall 11 percent decline in driver deaths. Among those killed in crashes, drivers of large trucks were least likely to have blood alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent (4 percent), and pedestrians ages 16 and older were the most likely to have been impaired (38 percent).
These facts are based on analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Fatality Analysis Reporting System.