The number of deaths on Pennsylvania’s highways has plunged to its lowest level since Model Ts still chugged along the roads of the commonwealth, and officials are crediting years of safety programs but cannot rule out an assist from the struggling economy.
According to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation figures, 1,256 people died in accidents in 2009, a 14.4 percent decline from 2008 and the lowest total since the state started keeping records in 1928. The previous low mark was 1,328 in fuel-scarce 1944 during World War II.
Officials had no immediate explanation for the decline, citing the cumulative effect of safety programs by state and local governments and others, but a PennDOT spokesman also acknowledged that less driving because of the recession may have been a factor.
“We like to think it’s a combination of things,” spokesman Steve Chizmar said, citing safety and educational efforts of the department, state and local police, schools and others.
A 2009 figure for vehicle miles traveled in Pennsylvania is not yet available, but Chizmar said the number of miles driven in the commonwealth has gone up from 2002 through 2008. “As far as the recession, we’re not seeing less vehicle miles traveled,” he said.
The commonwealth’s preliminary numbers indicate decreases in the number of deaths attributed to alcohol, aggressive driving, and drivers or passengers not using seat belts. Unrestrained deaths dropped from 567 in 2008 to 451 in 2009, alcohol-related deaths went from 531 to 442, and deaths in which aggressive driving was a factor dipped from 141 to 130.
But the number of fatalities in crashes involving drivers age 65 and older increased from 259 in 2008 to 276 in 2009.
In January, Pennsylvania’s highway safety laws were rated poorly by the nonprofit group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which said the state had enacted only 6.5 of 15 measures such as mandates for use of seat belts, motorcycle helmets and child-booster seats, bans on texting and cell-phone use, and efforts against drunken driving.
Asked about the 2009 figures, the group’s president, Judy Stone, said that Pennsylvania may rank low in safety legislation but “that’s not to say all efforts in the state to improve highway safety are not working.”
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