The number of traffic fatalities on U.S. highways fell to their lowest level in 61 years, according to the latest report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Law enforcement agencies in states with the steepest declines attributed the improvement, in part, to increased enforcement of speeding, drunk driving and seat-belt violations. Other factors include improved vehicle manufacturing, dual-side airbags, frangible power poles that sheer off at the bottom, and improved paramedic response.
In 2010, an estimated 32,788 people were killed in traffic accidents, according to the NHTSA, which represents a 25 percent decline since 2005, when there were 43,510 traffic fatalities. The year showed the fewest deaths since 1949, an era of motoring that predates much of the country's network of highways and interstates.
"Last year's drop in traffic fatalities is welcome news and it proves that we can make a difference," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first."
The agency also projected that the fatality rate will be the lowest recorded since 1949, with 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. This rate is down from the 1.13 fatality rate recorded for 2009. The decrease in fatalities for 2010 occurred despite an estimated increase of nearly 21 billion miles in national vehicle miles traveled.
The steepest drop in fatalities occurred in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, where they dropped by 12 percent. Arizona, California and Hawaii recorded a nearly 11 percent decline.
In Washington, increased attention to the problem since 2005 has netted results, Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins tells POLICE Magazine.
"In 2005, we saw an uptick in speed-related deaths, so the word went out to troopers to stop giving out warnings and start writing more tickets," Calkins said. "We really target the violations that we know cause traffic fatalities such as speed, DUI, and not wearing a seat belt as the things that kill."
The state patrol also set up "target zero" DUI squads in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, which had the highest DUI fatality rates. The state agency used a NHTSA grant to fund overtime for the units, which picked troopers with the highest DUI arrest rates.
Every state is required to submit a strategic highway plan to the Department of Transportation that outlines measures to reduce traffic deaths.
In 2009, California's traffic fatalities decreased 10.3 percent from 3,434 to 3,081, reaching their lowest level since 1975. California recorded a fatality rate of 1.05 in 2008, according to the California Highway Patrol, which was lower than the national rate of 1.25 for that year.
In May, the state launched its version of NHTSA's public awareness campaign, "Click It or Ticket," with a widespread placement of road signs.
"I believe it is the educational and enforcement efforts that all police agencies have conducted in California," California Highway Patrol Officer Adrian Quintero tells POLICE Magazine. "Thanks to grant through NHTSA and OTS (the state's Office of Traffic Safety) that include additional enforcement and education they play a key role in ensuring people are obeying speed limits, wearing seat belts, and not driving drunk."
For 2011, highway patrol officers are focusing on distracted driving, Officer Quintero said.