Fewer fatalities

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Clearly, the high gasoline prices in the first part of the year and the difficult economy in the second half caused people to drive less, thus reducing fatalities. However, there’s more occurring here than just economic factors.” –Barbara Harsha, executive director, Governors Highway Safety Association

There’s good news out there in the world of transportation, though increasingly must dig harder and harder to find it. One bright spot is a rapid decline in highway fatalities for many states over the course of 2008 – a trend line no doubt influenced by the economic meltdown we’re going through, yet one that’s also resulted from positive changes in behavior on the part of car drivers.

According to a survey conducted by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), 44 states and the District of Columbia indicated a decline in fatalities, while only four indicated an increase. Overall, the average decline was 10.7 percent, the group noted.

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Most surprising about the survey, said Barbara Harsha, GSHA’s executive director, was that many states saw a percentage decline in fatalities higher than their percentage decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). Notably, however, of the 19 states that indicated a decline in fatalities and provided an estimate of VMT, 17 reported their fatality percentage decline was more than the percentage decline in VMT—in most cases double, triple or even quadruple the decline in VMT.

It’s important to note that GSHA’s survey is based on PRELIMINARY data and that fatality estimates generally were based 12 months of data, while VMT estimates were based on 11 months of data. Still, even with that in mind, the rapidly declining rate in highway fatalities is a great story. That in turn means there are fewer crashes out there – or at least the ones of the highest severity, the ones that kill people – and that’s good news for anyone that’s a frequent highway user, like truckers.

According to Harsha, state highway safety agencies report other factors besides the down economy contributed to the fatality reduction, including: gains in seat belt use, stronger state laws and increased enforcement of these laws.

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“Multiple states have reported experiencing a reduction in driver speeds mainly because drivers want to improve their fuel efficiency,” she said. “For example, the speed of the average Oregon driver was down more than one mile per hour (MPH) in 2008. This may not sound like a lot, but reducing driver speeds means that more people are surviving crashes. Drivers may not slow down to save a life, but clearly they will slow down to save a buck.”

GHSA’s survey results mirror a December 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which noted that the federal government projects the number of people killed in traffic crashes to reach a new record low for 2008. Early DOT projections revealed a 10 percent drop in deaths for the first 10 months of 2008.

In my view at least, safer highways mean more productive highways – and that is also a good thing. The challenge, though, will be sticking to this trend line when the boom times return – if and when that may be.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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