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Traffic Deaths Decline to Lowest Levels Since 1961

The number of Americans killed on U.S. highways in 2008 reached the lowest level since 1961, according to a recent release from the Department of Transportation. Higher gas prices, which caused many to limit their driving activity, certainly helped the cause along with increased seat belt usage in many states.

The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 37,313 people were killed in vehicle traffic crashes during 2008. That’s 9.1 percent lower than in 2007, when 41,059 died, and the fewest since 1961, when 36,285 deaths were reported.

Another positive, the nation’s fatality rate, the number of deaths per 100 million miles driven, reached a record low at 1.28 in 2008 down from 1.36 in 2007.

It’s not uncommon for tough economic times to cause similar declines in traffic deaths. From 1973 to 1974, such deaths fell more than 16 percent as the U.S. dealt with the oil crisis and rampant inflation. Similarly, deaths dropped nearly 11 percent from 1981 to 1982 as the nation battled a recession.

The government reported that miles driven in 2008 fell by about 3.6 percent, to 2.92 trillion miles, proving that many adjusted their driving habits as gas prices rose and the economy tumbled. The number of miles driven by motorists had risen steadily over the past three decades.

Nationwide seat belt usage reached a record 83 percent in 2008. Fourteen states and the Washington, D.C. had usage rates of 90 percent or better. Michigan was the highest at 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 New Hampshire and Wyoming were also both under 70 percent.