WASHINGTON - An economic downturn can have a bright side: U.S. highway deaths in 2008 fell to their lowest level since John F. Kennedy was president.
The recession and $4-per-gallon gas meant people drove less to save more. Experts also cited record high seat belt use, tighter enforcement of drunken-driving laws, and the work of advocacy groups that encourage safer driving habits.
Preliminary figures being released by the government today show that 37,313 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year. That's 9.1 percent lower than the year before, when 41,059 died, and the fewest since 1961, when there were 36,285 deaths.
A different measure, also offering good news, was the fatality rate, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. It was 1.28 in 2008, the lowest on record. A year earlier, it was 1.36.
"The silver lining in a bad economy is that people drive less, and so the number of deaths go down," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"Not only do they drive less, but the kinds of driving they do tend to be less risky - there's less discretionary driving."
In Ohio, the state reported 1,074 fatalities in 2008, 89 fewer than in 2007, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
In Michigan, traffic crashes, deaths, and injuries all fell in 2008, authorities reported. Traffic deaths dropped to 980 from 1,084 in 2007. Traffic crashes fell 3 percent from 324,174 in 2007 to 316,057 in 2008. Injuries dropped 7 percent from 80,576 in 2007 to 74,568 in 2008. Alcohol-involved fatal crashes also declined from 313 in 2007 to 297 in 2008, state figures show.
Fatalities fell by more than 14 percent in New England, and by 10 percent or more in many states along the Atlantic seaboard, parts of the Upper Midwest, and the West Coast, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Americans should really be pleased that everyone has stepped up here in order to make driving safer and that people are paying attention to that," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
In the past, tough economic times have brought similar declines in roadway deaths. Fatalities fell more than 16 percent from 1973 to 1974 as the nation dealt with the oil crisis and inflation. Highway deaths dropped nearly 11 percent from 1981 to 1982.
The government said vehicle miles in 2008 fell by about 3.6 percent, to 2.92 trillion miles, indicating many people adjusted their driving habits as gas prices fluctuated and the economy tumbled.
The number of miles driven by motorists had risen steadily over the past three decades.
The figures are preliminary; final numbers and state-by-state totals are expected later in the year.
Several states have pushed for tougher seat belt laws that allow law enforcement officers to stop motorists whose sole offense was failing to buckle up. In 27 states and the District of Columbia, there are such enforcement laws. The remaining states, including Ohio, have laws that allow tickets for seat belt violations only if motorists are stopped for other offenses. New Hampshire has no seat belt law for adults.
Seat belt use in 2008 climbed to 83 percent, a record. Fourteen states and the nation's capital had rates of 90 percent or better. Michigan had the highest seat belt use rate with 97.2 percent, followed by Hawaii with 97 percent and Washington state at 96.5 percent. Massachusetts had the lowest rate, 66.8 percent, while it was under 70 percent in New Hampshire and Wyoming.