WASHINGTON — U.S. traffic deaths dropped last year to their lowest level since record-keeping began in 1949, according to an estimate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The region encompassing California, Arizona and Hawaii was the only one with an increase in highway fatalities, up about 3.3 percent from the previous year's rate.
Last year's national decline in traffic fatalities — to 32,310 — came as motorists drove about 36 billion, or about 1.2 percent, fewer miles, perhaps because of high gas prices and a still-difficult economy that might have discouraged pleasure road trips.
The 2011 fatality rate is projected to decline to the lowest on record, to 1.09 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Traffic deaths have fallen by about 26 percent since the 43,510 fatalities reported in 2005; highway fatalities peaked in 1972, at 54,589. In 1949, there were 30,246 fatalities, but the rate was 7.13 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
Traffic safety experts attributed the decline to a number of factors — "probably people driving less, safer vehicles, safer roads and an improvement in the safety culture across the United States," Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy for the AAA national office, said in an interview.
Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association cited increased seat belt use, safer cars, better roads and an improved emergency medical service response effort. "Also, the economy continues to keep traffic deaths lower than normal," he added.
The biggest decline, by region, is projected to be in New England, a 7.2 percent reduction in traffic deaths.