Traffic deaths dropped substantially in 16 states last year, in many cases reflecting stepped-up enforcement and education campaigns, a USA TODAY analysis of statistics shows.
Highway fatalities fell by at least 5 percent in those states and rose at least that much in nine states. Texas and Georgia reported preliminary declines of more than 5 percent, but traffic safety agencies in those states said they expect the totals to rise above 2005′s figures.
The fatality numbers are preliminary. Several states are still collecting data from county and local law enforcement agencies, and the figures could rise.
Highway safety officials in several states said they were pleased by the unofficial 2006 numbers.
“This was the safest year on Ohio roads on record,” said Lt. Tony Bradshaw of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
He said 1,238 people died on the state’s streets and highways last year, a 6.6 percent drop from 2005.
Bradshaw attributed the decline to enforcement and education efforts and new research initiatives that enable state troopers to focus on areas where crashes are most likely to occur.
Illinois saw traffic deaths fall below 1,300 for the first time since 1924.
Road deaths there have dropped every year since 2003, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law that allows police to stop motorists solely for not wearing seat belts.
Last year, three other states – Alaska, Kentucky and Mississippi – enacted such laws, bringing the number to 25.
All three states reported declines in traffic deaths. Officials in Kentucky and Mississippi attributed the drops to the new law.
States report their highway death numbers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which analyzes the figures before issuing a preliminary national fatality total, usually in August.
The agency releases its official tally in the fall.
The 2006 total is not likely to show major changes from 2005.
Since 1995, the annual total has ranged between 41,000 and 43,000.
National highway safety experts caution that the preliminary 2006 statistics should not be viewed as evidence of safety trends.
“It’s impossible to draw conclusions or see a trend in just one year to the next in state data, because the fluctuations are often very large in any one state’s fatality figures,” said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Even something as basic as the weather can affect traffic fatalities.”
“You have to look at vehicle miles traveled, the cost of gas, whether people were driving as much,” said Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “To give full credit to (enforcement and education efforts) is probably not fair.”
Preliminary figures from Arizona show 1,193 traffic fatalities in 2006, up 1.2 percent from 2005.