HARDLY a day goes by without a news report of a fatal traffic accident, often involving alcohol. With so many personal tragedies, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture, but that broader view holds some good news.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the overall number of traffic fatalities last year hit their lowest level since 1961. What's more, the first three months of this year showed the decline was continuing.
According to the transportation department, the fatality rate - which accounts for variables like fewer miles traveled - is now at the lowest level ever recorded. The 2008 fatality data put the national highway death count at 37,261 - still a high number, the equivalent of a small city - but that was down by 9.7 percent from 2007.
In Ohio, the decline was 5.2 percent. Michigan exceeded the national average with 9.8 percent fewer deaths.
The decline occurred pretty much across the board of vehicle categories, with the notable exception of motorcycle deaths, which rose for the 11th straight year and now make up 14 percent of all fatalities. As some states like Ohio have foolishly allowed bikers to ride without helmets, that is a scary statistic. About half of those weren't wearing helmets.
While noting that America still has a long way to go in traffic safety, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cited some major strides that influenced the declining death rate: increased seat belt use, safer roads and highways, safer vehicles, and curtailment of impaired driving. In the latter case, alcohol-impaired fatalities declined by more than 9 percent over 2007.
Additionally, a roadside survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, conducted at more than 300 locations in the nation and released this week, showed a continuing decline in the percentage of intoxicated drivers. In 1973, the rate for drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher was 7.5 percent. In the latest survey, the numbers of drivers at or above the national legal limit for intoxication was 2.2 percent.
It wasn't all good news. The survey, which focused on weekend, nighttime drivers, found that 16.3 percent of drivers were drug positive, which, of course, can cause its own impairment. As for the drinkers, motorcycle drivers were more than twice as likely as passenger vehicle drivers to be drunk.
As Secretary LaHood said, it is pleasing that the battle against drunk driving is succeeding, however "alcohol still kills 13,000 people a year on our roads and we must continue to be vigilant."
In short, the good news could still be better.