LARRY COPELAND, ALAN GOMEZ and OREN DORELL
Traffic deaths dropped substantially in 16 states last year, in many cases reflecting stepped-up enforcement and education campaigns, according to a USA TODAY analysis of statistics reported by the states.
Highway fatalities fell by at least 5% in those 16 states. In nine other states, deaths rose by at least that much. Texas and Georgia reported preliminary declines of more than 5%, but traffic safety agencies in those states expect the final totals to rise significantly.
While the fatality numbers are preliminary and unofficial, they show startling drops in some states. Safety officials attribute the declines in part to coordinated programs aimed at careless or reckless driving.
"This was the safest year on Ohio roads on record," says Lt. Tony Bradshaw of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. He says 1,238 people died on the state's roads last year, a 6.6% drop from 2005.
Bradshaw attributes the decline to enforcement and education efforts and new research initiatives that enable state troopers to focus on areas where crashes are most likely to occur.
Illinois saw traffic deaths fall below 1,300, the lowest total since 1924. Road deaths there have been dropping every year since 2003, when the state enacted a law that allows police to stop motorists solely for not wearing seat belts.
"These numbers represent clear and convincing evidence to us that the law is working and seat belts really do save lives," Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says.
Last year, three other states -- Alaska, Kentucky and Mississippi -- enacted such laws, bringing the number to 25. All three states reported declines in traffic deaths. Officials in Kentucky and Mississippi attributed the drops to the new law.
Among other factors cited in states that had drops in traffic fatalities: stiffer drunken-driving laws, police checkpoints aimed at aggressive driving, improved highway design, and graduated license programs and other safety efforts targeting young drivers.
Several states are still collecting data from county and local law enforcement agencies and say their 2006 fatality figures could rise.
States report their highway death numbers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which analyzes the figures before issuing a preliminary national fatality total, usually in August. NHTSA releases its official tally in the fall. The 2006 total is not likely to show major changes from 2005. Since 1995, the annual total has ranged between 41,000 and 43,000.
Still to be calculated is each state's traffic-fatality rate, which is the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The U.S. fatality rate, which had been dropping for more than 10 years, rose to 1.47 in 2005 from 1.45 in 2004, according to NHTSA data.
National highway safety experts caution that the preliminary 2006 statistics should not be viewed as evidence of trends. "It's impossible to draw conclusions or see a trend in just one year to the next in state data, because the fluctuations are often very large in any one state's fatality figures," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Even something as basic as the weather can affect traffic fatalities."
"You have to look at vehicle miles traveled, the cost of gas, whether people were driving as much," says Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "To give full credit to (enforcement and education efforts) is probably not fair. And I say that as someone who would love to give full credit."
In states where fatalities rose substantially, agencies cited increases in pedestrian deaths, aggressive driving, drunken driving and speeding as factors.
Copyright 2007 USA Today
Traffic deaths drop in 2006; stepped up education, enforcement cited