Traffic deaths have fallen to their lowest levels since 1950, according to recently released federal data, but it's unclear how much of the drop is a temporary effect of the down economy and how much is the result of lasting safety improvements.
The data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show fatalities fell nearly 10 percent to 33,808 in 2009. The estimated number of injured people fell by more than 5 percent to 2.2 million. Total police-reported crashes also were down 5 percent from 2008.
Early projections indicate the trend has continued. The agency estimates that fatalities fell another 9 percent during the first half of this year to 14,996.
"Vehicles today are better than ever at protecting occupants in a crash, and electronic stability control, which can avert a crash altogether, is no longer a rarity," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "At the same time, we don't know how big a role the current economic downturn is playing or what will happen with the numbers after the economy picks up again."
The number of miles driven in the United States in 2009 is estimated to have inched up 0.2 percent compared with 2008, when it fell for the first time since 1980. But that statistic doesn't take into account what kind of trips people took or who was doing the driving. For example, driving to and from a restaurant in the evening — something people do less often in a recession — might be more dangerous than the daily commute. And teenagers, who are more likely than adults to crash, may be spending less time behind the wheel if they can't find jobs.
The 2009 data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the early estimate of January to June 2010 fatalities are available at nhtsa.gov.
Other 2009 highlights
- Motorcycle fatalities dropped 16 percent,following 11 straight years of increases.
- Large-truck occupants experienced the biggest decline in deaths — 26 percent.
- Deaths involving alcohol-impaired driving decreased 7 percent to 10,839.
- Passenger vehicle occupant deaths fell 8 percent to 23,437.
- Overall fatalities fell in 41 states and D.C.