John Spink/AP

US Auto Fatalities Decline Significantly in 2008

December 13, 2008 08:01 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
United States highway fatalities have dropped nearly 10 percent in 2008, and could be on their way to the lowest total in 42 years.

Roadways Becoming Safer

The United States is currently on track to have its lowest number of highway deaths since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began tracking fatal accidents 42 years ago, according to the Associated Press.

National highway fatalities were at their highest in 1972, with more than 54,000 deaths. Data collected this year through October showed a total of 31,110 deaths, down from 34,502 at the same point in 2007.

“I’m thrilled about these numbers,” NHTSA Administrator David Kelly told the Associated Press. “When you talk about reductions in traffic fatalities in one year you are usually talking about hundreds in a good year. The fact that deaths are down 3,000 so far this year is staggering.”

Seven states have seen highway fatalities drop even more than the national average for 2008. In Wisconsin, for example, roadway deaths have dropped 21 percent, a level not seen since World War II.

A number of factors have combined to make 2008 a safer year on the roads. Seatbelt use is at 85 percent, safety technology is helping to prevent vehicles from rollover and the number of alcohol-related deaths on the road has fallen, NHTSA spokeswoman Ellen Martin told CNN.

The financial crisis may also be a factor. “One of the few benefits of a bad economy is that you don’t kill as many people in motor vehicle crashes,” Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, explained to the Los Angeles Times. With previously high gas prices and the current poor economy, people have found alternatives to get themselves to work and other places they need to go.

However, Dennis Hughes, a safety expert for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, told the Chicago Tribune he’s not attributing too much of the drop to gas prices. “I will be the last one to give full credit to gas prices,” Hughes stated. “That is certainly a factor. They limit our travel. They get us to slow down. They make us make wiser decisions about trip-making. That is only part of the answer. I can guarantee you our traffic is not down 20 percent.”

Related Topic: Other factors that influence driving

Daylight-saving time

In 2005, Congress enacted new rules for daylight-saving time, expanding the daylight-saving period so that it now begins three weeks earlier, on the first weekend in March, and ends one week later, in the first week in November. The rules did not take effect until 2007.

According to CNN, when daylight-saving time occurs can influence the number of accidents on the road. A study in 2003 found that the Sunday after Americans “fall back” is particularly dangerous because people don’t always use that extra hour of time for sleeping; many stay out later on Saturday night and are groggier on roads the next day.

However, a study in the 1970s showed an overall decline in traffic accidents because of daylight-saving time. Most incidents occur during evening commutes, according to Columbia News Service, and an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day can help motorists.

Cell phones

Cell phone bans have drivers buying hands-free headsets so they can keep on talking in their cars, but hands-free phone conversations might not be any safer. Psychologists have argued for years that it’s the cell phone conversation itself, not the phone you’re using, that leads to accidents. New scientific experiments are backing up those claims.

“It’s because your mind isn't on the road,” said University of Utah psychologist David Strayer, whose research has found driving while talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as driving drunk.

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