WASHINGTON — US highway deaths have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1950s because more motorists are buckling up and embraced safety innovations. A sour economy that dampened traveling also was a contributor.
The Transportation Department said its projections show total traffic deaths declined nearly 9 percent in 2009 — to 33,963. That’s the lowest toll since 1954. In 2008, an estimated 37,261 people died on the highway.
Highway safety officials also reported a record low fatality rate, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. It fell to 1.15 in 2009, compared with a record low — at the time — of 1.25 in 2008.
Highway deaths have dropped steadily since 2005, when an estimated 43,510 people were killed.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was encouraged by the data but said there were “far too many people dying in traffic accidents. Drivers need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their focus on the road in order to stay safe.’’
Safety specialists attribute the reductions to increased seat belt use, progress in targeting drunken driving, and more enforcement of traffic laws. Others point to the sluggish economy, which typically leads fewer people to drive.
The decline in roadway deaths follow similar patterns formed during the early 1980s and early 1990s, when difficult economic conditions led many drivers to cut back on discretionary travel.
But the reductions also follow years of safety improvements. Seat belt use climbed to 84 percent in 2009.