msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/11/2008 6:52:49 PM ET 2008-12-11T23:52:49

The number of people killed in traffic crashes in the U.S. this year is expected to be the lowest on record, federal transportation officials said Thursday.

Early projections show traffic deaths for the first 10 months of 2008 are down about 10 percent compared with the same period last year. Estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 31,110 people died on the nation's roads from January through October, compared with 34,502 during the same period in 2007.

In addition, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicles miles traveled for the first nine months of 2008 is 1.28, compared to 1.37 for 2007.

“Our focus on safety — from our highways, railways, seaways and airways — has led to one of the safest periods in our nation’s transportation history,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said in making the announcement in Kansas City. “Every American can be more confident than ever they will arrive at their destination safe and sound.”

Trending lower
NHTSA, the agency within the Department of Transportation that administers traffic safety programs, annually collects crash statistics from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to produce annual reports on traffic fatality trends. The agency intends to update 2008 estimates regularly as more data becomes available. The final counts for 2008 will be made available in the summer of 2009.

In 2007, the number of traffic fatalities fell to 41,059, the lowest number since 1994.

“For the second year in a row we are seeing historic lows in deaths on our nation’s roads,” Peters said. “While we are encouraged by these declines, our work is not nearly complete in making our safe transportation network even safer.”

The traffic safety administration has been tracking auto fatalities since 1966, when there were more than 50,000 deaths on the highways. The number of deaths peaked in 1972 at 54,589, then generally declined over the next two decades. The total has hovered above 40,000 the past few years.

Less driving, better safety
NHTSA did not cite a cause for the dramatic decline in highway deaths, but it overlaps with several other trends.

The Federal Highway Administration, which counts the number of cars on the road, says the number of miles Americans are driving every month has been declining since late 2007, continuing through the first three quarters of 2008.

High gas prices through most of the year accelerated a shift to more fuel-efficient cars and to alternatives to driving. Subways, buses, commuter rail and light-rail systems are reporting record increases in ridership. Amtrak, the nation's intercity passenger railroad, said it carried more passengers and brought in more revenue in fiscal 2008 than in any other year in its 37-year history.

Acting NHTSA Administrator David Kelly said it's likely safety measures also played a role in the decline in fatalities: Seatbelt use is at its highest level ever, greater numbers of SUVs and other light trucks are equipped with technology that prevents rollovers, and the federal government has been working with state and local law enforcement agencies on anti-drunken- driving campaigns.

"I'm thrilled about these numbers," Kelly said. "When you talk about reductions in traffic fatalities in one year you are usually talking about hundreds in a good year. The fact that deaths are down 3,000 so far this year is staggering."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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