The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is reporting that traffic fatalities declined in 2009 to record lows. That news comes alongside a continued drop in injuries due to highway crashes. Both developments are remarkable in that there was an increase in vehicular traffic last year. (Read more safety-related news from FleetOwner)

NHTSA said highway deaths due to crashes fell to 33,808 in 2009; a 9.7% decline from 37,423 deaths reported in 2008. That’s the lowest number since 1950 (when 33,186 people perished in highway collisions) resulting in a fatality rate of 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) for 2009. That compares markedly to a rate of 1.26 deaths per 100 million VMT for 2008.

Truck-involved traffic fatalities declined even more steeply in 2009, according to NHTSA -- dropping 20% to 3,380 from 4,245 in 2008. Additionally, the number of truck occupant deaths decreased 26% in 2009 to 503, with truck occupant injuries falling 26% as well, the agency noted.

Fatalities declined in all categories of vehicles as well – even for motorcycles, which witnessed a reduction in fatalities of 850 in 2009 compared to 2008, breaking an 11-year cycle of annual increases.

The agency added that an estimated 2.217 million people were injured in 2009, a 5.5% decline from 2.346 million in 2008 – marking the tenth year in a row these numbers fell. Also, fatal crashes dropped 9.9% to 30,797 in 2009, with the total number of vehicular crashes (fatal, injury and property damage alone) falling 5.3% last year as well, NHTSA noted.

“This is the type of announcement that traffic safety professionals devote careers to,” David Kelly, former NHTSA Acting Administrator and now president of consulting firm Storm King Strategies, told FleetOwner.

“When fatalities drop dramatically in every single category, you are seeing the culmination of various programs – especially the national safety belt and alcohol law enforcement mobilizations,” he said.

A total of 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all posted reductions in fatalities, according to NHTSA’s numbers, led by Florida (with 422 fewer fatalities) and Texas (with 405 fewer fatalities).

Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities declined by 7.4% in 2009 – 10,839 compared to 11,711 reported in 2008. And 33 states plus Puerto Rico experienced a decline in the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities last year compared to 2008.

“Today’s numbers reflect the tangible benefits of record seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “But we are still losing more than 30,000 lives a year on our highways, and about a third of these involve drunk driving. We will continue to work with our state partners to strictly enforce both seatbelt use and anti-drunk driving laws across this nation.”

Safety experts also observed that while the global economic recession has reduced vehicular traffic to a degree – thus helping reduce the number of highway crashes, fatalities, and injuries – the safety achievements represented by these statistics should be sustainable for the future.

“One of the long-held arguments about these trends in traffic safety was that because vehicle mileage was down, exposure [to crash risk] dropped as well,” David Heller, director of safety & policy for the Truckload Carriers Assn., told FleetOwner. “But mileage has actually increased.”

“While the research indicates that fatalities may rise if the economy improves, it is clear that most of these are concrete gains that are independent of the economy,” added Kelly of Storm King Strategies. “The traffic safety community will build off these successes and continue to make improvements and drive the fatality number down even further.”