Highway Fatalities Lowest Since 1950

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced this week that highway deaths in 2009 fell to the lowest number since 1950. That happened even while vehicle miles traveled increased. Last year saw the lowest fatality and injury rates ever recorded (1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled). The number of people injured in motor vehicle crashes declined for the 10th straight year. Alcohol impaired driving fatalities declined by 7.4 percent. All of this evidence points to successful federal and state efforts to make the nation’s roads safer.

The data is compiled in a Traffic Safety Facts research note from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration somewhat awkwardly titled “Highlights of 2009 Motor Vehicle Crashes.” The brief includes a state-by-state breakdown of total highway fatalities and alcohol impaired fatalities and the percentage changes from 2008 to 2009.  

“We attribute the progress to a host of factors,” the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association Barbara Harsha said in a statement, “including increased seat belt use, stronger enforcement of drunk driving laws, better roads, safer vehicles and an increasingly well-coordinated approach to safety among state stakeholders and the federal government.”

LaHood explained it this way: “Cars are getting safer—as crash avoidance and crash worthiness technologies improve; roadways are getting safer—with safer intersections, better signs and lighting, and more effective crash barriers; and drivers are getting safer—buckling their seatbelts, not getting behind the wheel when impaired, and keeping their eyes and attention on the road, not on their cell phones.”

Harsha and others pointed to Secretary LaHood’s continued focus on lowering the number of distracted drivers. The secretary will convene a National Distracted Driving Summit on September 21st in Washington, D.C.

But as LaHood points out in his blog this week, road fatality numbers are nothing to celebrate and the job is by no means over. There were still more than 33,000 highway fatalities last year, about a third of them involving drunk driving.

“America’s roads are the safest they’ve ever been, but they can be safer,” he wrote. “And we will not rest until they are.”

States and the federal government are already mapping out a future where technology will help make roads even safer. I wrote about that in a Capitol Research brief earlier this year entitled “Intelligent Transportation Systems.”

"We envision a world with connected vehicles, that we think can dramatically improve safety, mobility, and sustainability," the Acting Director of Intelligent Transportation System programs at the U.S. DOT Robert Bertini said in an interview this week with Federal News Radio.

As part of a federal research program called IntelliDrive, the U.S. DOT is working with states, auto manufacturers and others to develop technologies aimed at:

  • Significantly reducing highway crashes and fatalities;
  • Providing traffic managers with data to accurately assess and manage transportation system performance;
  • Providing travelers continual access to accurate travel time information about mode choice and route options and their potential environmental impacts; and
  • Allowing vehicles to communicate with traffic signals to eliminate unnecessary stops and help drivers operate vehicles more efficiently.

Many hope that those and other research and development efforts combined with efforts to address the human behavior factor along with the continued dedication of federal, state and local highway safety officials can help ensure an even safer future on the nation’s roads.