Road Fatalities Dip Thanks To Safer Cars, Economy

December 30, 2010

Sonari Glinton

On New Year's Eve, drivers will be warned of the dangers on American roads, especially when alcohol is involved. Drinking is increasingly a factor in roadside fatalities.

But overall, the number of people killed on American roads has fallen dramatically, by more than 20 percent in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation study.

The study shows two likely reasons for that drop are safer cars and a slower economy.

Cars today have anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags and the back-up avoidance beeping.

Nancy White with AAA says all those new bells and whistles have had an effect. They've made being on the road safer. White says that in 2009, there was a record decrease in traffic fatalities.

"It's great news, but we're still looking at a death every 15 minutes on the road," she says.

Fewer Cars Out During Rush Hour

But that number is down by historic proportions. In 2005, there were nearly 44,000 road-related deaths. In 2009, there were about 34,000, a 22 percent drop.

White says it's not just safer cars, it's things like more roundabouts instead of four stop signs, and that more people are wearing seat belts.

Michael Sivak, with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, also cites one more curious factor.

"I think we can't ignore the fact that the economy has played a role in the number of fatalities and the decrease of people out there on the road," he says.

Sivak says the weak economy has reduced driving deaths in almost every conceivable way.

"You're also driving slower, trying to conserve gasoline," he says. "We have seen reductions during rush hour, suggesting that increase in unemployment has affected the amount of driving during rush hours."

There's been a larger reduction of deaths on interstates than on road, which Sivak says that means people went on fewer vacations.

"Truck fatal crashes were reduced more than passenger fatal crashes, suggesting to us that the reductions in freight shipment have contributed substantially to the overall improvement in the picture," he says.

Older People Buying Motorcycles

There are still some problematic areas. Deaths related to inattentive driving are up, as are deaths related to alcohol use. And motorcycle fatalities have also gone up.

That could be related to the weak job market for younger people.

Bob Henig, 56, runs Bob's BMW Motorcycles in Jessup, Md. He personally owns more than 60 motorcycles and has had his motorcycle shop in Maryland for more than 30 years.

Henig says he's noticed a change in who buys motorcycles -- or toys as he calls them.

"The toys are not inexpensive, and so as a result of that the financial wherewithal is bringing an older clientele to the table," he says.

Those older clients according to the University of Michigan study could be a part of why the motorcycle deaths have gone up.  Older people getting on bikes for the first time are less experienced and more likely to get into trouble.

Henig says most of those motorcycle deaths could be prevented with more training.

"I mean nobody get to fly a plane without proper training." He says. "It's the same thing. If you learn the right from the very beginning, it's always a better experience."

Henig says if everyone thought about the risks they're taking, the roads would get safer, even when the economy gets better. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.