In 1950, seat belts weren’t in common use, airbags were the stuff of science fiction and stability control generally referred to a cocktail after a hard day at the office. That year saw 33,186 traffic fatalities on U.S. roads, and the number of annual deaths began to increase as more Americans took to the roads. In 2009, for the first time in nearly 60 years, traffic deaths in the U.S. fell below 34,000, ending the year at 33,808. Even motorcycle deaths fell last year, ending an 11 year trend of annual increases.
In terms of the fatality rate per driven mile, 2009 saw the lowest value ever recorded at 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven. This number is significant, as it corrects for the number of cars and drivers on the road today as compared to 1950. Forty one states saw reductions in traffic fatalities, led by Florida which recorded 422 fewer deaths in 2009 compared to 2008.
There are numerous factors contributing to the decline, including safer cars, higher seat belt usage and fewer drunk drivers on the roads. The downside to the stats is that they’re also a reflection on the economy; while the number of overall miles driven has increased, the number of miles driven for recreational purposes (i.e., vacations) has decreased. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood speculated that these leisure traffic deaths will increase as the economy rebounds, but was confident that fatality rates would not return previous levels.
If you’re into statistics and want to read the full NHTSA report, you’ll find it here.