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US Road Fatalities Hit Record Low
Data suggest economy, more than public policy, the primary factor in reducing accidents.

Ray LaHood and David Strickland
Earlier this month, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that traffic fatalities and injuries reached an all-time low in 2009. Last year's tally of 33,808 highway deaths represented the lowest figure on record since 1950, despite a small 0.2 percent increase in overall vehicle traffic. Many local officials have taken advantage of the positive trend by crediting benefits seen nationwide to particular public policies implemented locally. Federal officials likewise used the statistics to promote their own programs that encourage the issuance of traffic tickets.

"Today's numbers reflect the tangible benefits of record seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns," said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator (NHTSA) David Strickland said in a September 9 statement.

A more detailed NHTSA report calculated that the number of people killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled dropped ten percent from 1.26 in 2008 to 1.13 in 2009. The highway injury rate dropped 6.3 percent from 79 to 74. Injury crashes dropped 6.9 percent and property-damage-only crashes dropped 4.6 percent. This document highlighted other factors responsible for the overall 5.3 percent accident decline.

"The reduction in total fatalities could be attributed to many factors such as the economy, unemployment, improvements in vehicle design, and highway safety programs," the August Traffic Safety Facts Research Note explained.

In June, NHTSA released "An Analysis of the Significant Decline in Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities" which took a far more detailed look at the 2008 fatality data, digging deeper into the decline in the number of accidents since the 2005 peak of 43,510 deaths. The study used Census Bureau and National Automotive Sampling System General Estimates System figures to supplement the usual statistics from NHTSA's own Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database. The report found the greatest reduction in fatal accidents happened among young drivers aged 16 to 24 and were figures consistent with figures seen in previous economic downturns.

"In the past, similar significant declines in fatalities were seen during the early 1980s and the early 1990s," the report explained. "Both of these periods coincided with significant economic recessions in the United States. During both these time periods, fatalities in crashes involving younger drivers (16 to 24) declined significantly as compared to drivers in the other, older age groups.... Analyzing the FARS fatality data along with the national and local unemployment rates, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), showed that large fatality declines tended to coincide with areas that had higher increases in rates of unemployment."

The study then examined unemployment rates in each major metropolitan area. Those with the largest increase in unemployment rate from 2007 to 2008 had the highest reduction in fatalities. Those with the least change in jobless figures saw the least change in fatalities. In Phoenix, Arizona for example, officials routinely credited the significant accident reduction taking place in the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolitan area to the statewide deployment of speed cameras that began in October 2008, and before that photo radar use on Scottsdale's Loop 101 freeway and city streets throughout the region. During 2008, accidents dropped an impressive 31.5 percent. According to BLS data, however, the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale area experienced the third-largest drop in employment in the country -- 86,800 jobs. Other areas, such as Greenbay, Wisconsin and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina saw greater accident reductions, 52.6 percent and 47.7 percent respectively, even though photo enforcement is banned in both states.

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