WASHINGTON — An economic downturn can have a bright side: U.S. highway deaths in 2008 fell to their lowest level since John F. Kennedy was president.
The recession and $4 per gallon gas meant people drove less to save more. Experts also cited record high seat belt use, tighter enforcement of drunken driving laws and the work of advocacy groups that encourage safer driving habits.
"The silver lining in a bad economy is that people drive less, and so the number of deaths go down," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Not only do they drive less but the kinds of driving they do tend to be less risky — there's less discretionary driving."
In the past, tough economic times have brought similar declines in roadway deaths. Fatalities fell more than 16 percent from 1973 to 1974 as the nation dealt with the oil crisis and inflation. Highway deaths dropped nearly 11 percent from 1981 to 1982 as President Ronald Reagan battled a recession.
The government said vehicle miles traveled in 2008 fell by about 3.6 percent, to 2.92 trillion miles, indicating many people adjusted their driving habits as gas prices fluctuated and the economy tumbled. The number of miles driven by motorists had risen steadily over the past three decades.
The figures are preliminary; final numbers and state-by-state totals are expected later in the year.
Many safety groups said it was unclear if fatalities will continue to drop once the economy improves. If the projections hold, 2008 would be the first year since 1992 when traffic fatalities dipped below 40,000. Even with the declines, more than 100 people die on U.S. roads every day.