WASHINGTON, D.C. — Highway deaths have fallen to levels not seen since the Korean War, helped by more people wearing seat belts, better safety equipment in cars and efforts to curb drunken driving.
The Transportation Department estimated Friday that 32,788 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2010, a decrease of about 3 percent from 2009. It’s the fewest number of deaths since 1949 — during the presidency of Harry Truman — when more than 30,000 people were killed. Since 2005, highway deaths have fallen about 25 percent.
The Pacific Northwest region, which includes Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, saw fatalities fall 12 percent. Western states including Arizona, California and Hawaii also posted large declines.
Government officials said the number of deaths was still significant but credited efforts on multiple fronts to make roadways safer.
“Despite this good news, we are not going to rest on our laurels,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday. “The number of people killed in preventable roadway tragedies is still too high. We need to keep doing all that we can to make sure that vehicles are as safe as they can possibly be and drivers are making responsible decisions behind the wheel.”
The numbers are projections for 2010. The government expects to release final data on deaths and injuries, including specific state-by-state totals, later this year.
Traffic deaths typically decline during an economic downturn because many motorists cut back on discretionary travel. The number of deaths fell in the early 1980s and early 1990s, when the U.S. economy was struggling.
But people spent more time in their cars last year, making the estimates more noteworthy. The number of miles traveled by American drivers in 2010 grew by 20.5 billion, or 0.7 percent, compared with 2009, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The number of miles traveled increased slightly in 2009 after declines in the previous two years.
Separately, the rate of 1.09 deaths per 100 million miles traveled is estimated to have hit a record low in 2010, the lowest since 1949. The previous record was in 2009, which had a rate of 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles traveled.
“It’s a really good sign that fatalities are down despite the fact that [vehicle miles traveled] is up,” said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Harsha said fewer people were dying because of a number of factors related to vehicle technologies, safer driving and road designs.
Safety equipment such as side air bags that guard the head and midsection in a crash and anti-rollover technology such as electronic stability control are becoming standard equipment on new cars and trucks.
Judie Stone, president of the safety group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the proliferation of air bags in new cars, beyond the frontal air bags used to protect the driver and front-seat passenger, was making a difference. “In addition to having more cars with air bags, you have more air bags in cars,” Stone said.
Many states have been more vigilant on drunken driving. Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities fell more than 7 percent in 2009 from the previous year.
And seat belt use, the most basic defense in a crash, reached an all-time high of 84 percent in 2009. Several states have allowed police to stop a vehicle for failure to wear a seat belt even if the officer doesn’t detect another driving violation like speeding.
John Whatley, who serves as interim president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the numbers showed that “auto travel today is safer than ever before — not because of an economic slump, but because automakers have worked with other stakeholders to bring innovation to autos.”