U.S. traffic deaths decline, but effort to more must continue

Although it’s encouraging that vehicular deaths in the U.S. declined last year to their lowest number since 1950, the statistic is of no comfort to survivors of those who lost their lives.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently reported that road deaths fell 9.7 percent in 2009 to 33,808, the lowest number since 1950. In 2008, 37,423 people died as a result of crashes on the highways.

In Michigan, the road fatality decline has been even more impressive. Anne Readett, communications director for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, offered the following statistic: The 871 people who died on Michigan roads last year was the lowest since 1924, when 863 lost their lives.

The foregoing Michigan numbers seem hard to believe, as there were far fewer drivers 86 years ago. Yet, in that era there were autos whose powerful engines enabled speeds comparable to those we see today. Moreover, the state highway system was still being developed, and many roads were far from safe.

While tragic, the foregoing numbers pale in comparison to the following statistic: In all of our nation’s wars, roughly 1.3 million men and women in the military were killed. But since the deaths of 26 people in 1899 (when the government began compiling the numbers), there have been 3.5 million whose lives were lost on our roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the worst traffic year was 1972 when road deaths claimed 54,589.

Fortunately, history is not repeating itself, and the decline clearly is real. Our interstate highways, which began being constructed during the Eisenhower administration, have lessened not only the fatalities, but also pressure on drivers. If you don’t believe that, ask anyone who drove before on the two- and three-lane roads before the interstates came along. Also, safety features on today’s cars and trucks are vastly improved.

Here are some additional interesting national numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation:

• Motorcycle fatalities broke a string of 11 years of annual increases, falling by 16 percent, from 5,312 in 2008 to 4,462 in 2009.

• The number of people injured in motor vehicle crashes fell for a 10th consecutive year.

• Alcohol-impaired driving deaths declined 7.4 percent in 2009 to 10,839, compared with 11,711 in 2008.

There are steps drivers can take to keep lowering the number of traffic fatalities. First, there are still too many drunken drivers behind the wheels, although police in Michigan and throughout the nation are cracking down. Penalties for drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs should be made more severe.

Driver education in our schools has been around for a long time, and without it the fatality rates probably would be significantly higher.

And how about cell phones? Some states don’t allow their use by drivers. Readett pointed out that in Michigan, the only restriction in vehicles with cell phones is texting by drivers. If we had our way, we’d ban cell phone use by drivers in moving vehicles.

Equally important are high state and national priorities involving road construction and maintenance.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the latest report “shows that America’s roads are the safest they’ve ever been. But they must be safer. And we will not rest until they are.”

Modern travel, of course, carries risks — either on roads, on rail, in the air or on the water. Although those risks will continue to be accepted in the modern society that we have created, so should efforts to reduce the transportation tragedies that take place every day.