Bad economy gets credit for fewer traffic deaths

Rising unemployment. Stagnant wages. Expensive gas. Decimated home prices.

Is there any good news out there?

Actually, there is: Florida's highways haven't been this safe in years — thanks in part, analysts say, to the state's dismal economy.

The state's traffic deaths dropped in 2008 to their lowest level in eight years, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Traffic fatalities dropped 7 percent from 3,221 deaths in 2007 to 2,983 in 2008. It was the first time traffic deaths have dropped below 3,000 since 2000.

The country is sharing in Florida's good fortune. In 2008, national traffic deaths dropped 10 percent to 37,261, according to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration. It's the lowest number since 1961.

The news in Tampa Bay isn't all good, however. Alcohol-related fatalities increased in Pinellas County. More pedestrians were hurt in Hillsborough County. Motorcycle injuries rose in Hernando County.

But overall, fewer people are dying on Tampa Bay's roads and across the state.

"The economy hopefully will get better," said Leticia Messam, traffic safety programs manager for AAA Auto Club South. "But if this is a result of a bad economy, it's definitely good news that fatalities are down."

Law enforcement also credits the drop in fatalities to safer vehicles, better public education and tougher enforcement of drunken driving and seat-belt laws.

Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Welch credited the state's heavy emphasis on national campaigns like Click It or Ticket, which stresses seat-belt use, and Over the Limit Under Arrest, which targets impaired drivers.

Tampa police spokeswoman Darla Portman credited officers who have been targeting Tampa's 40 busiest roadways.

Experts expect the trend to continue. National statistics bear that out. In fact, the number of deaths so far in 2009 has fallen so dramatically that, at this pace, there will be 6,000 fewer fatalities nationwide than last year.

Laws are getting tougher, too. Before, officers couldn't pull someone over just for driving without a seat belt. But they can as of June 30 — and they are.

"It's zero tolerance if you're not wearing your seat belt," said Highway Patrol Sgt. Larry Kraus.

AAA Auto Club South estimates the tougher seat-belt law will save 174 lives in Florida this year alone.

But the economic factors are obvious, too, other experts say.

People are cutting back on travel and entertainment. They're cutting back on gas. They're not having that extra drink with dinner or they're not driving out to eat. Many no longer have jobs to drive to.

The drop in fatalities is no surprise to Christopher Ruhm, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

He has studied trends from the 1970s to the turn of the century that show life expectancy growing in economic downturns, but shrinking during boom times.

The reason: In good economic times, people work longer and harder. But they also get hurt more. They have less time to take care of themselves but can also afford to eat and drink more.

People can't afford those luxuries in bad times. But they have the time to take better care of themselves.

Traffic patterns show the same thing, Ruhm said.

"When times are good, people are driving more, they're doing all these things that have these risks," the professor said. "But when times are tough, they cut back on those things. They drink less, particularly heavy drinkers. They smoke less. They're just healthier on average."

The state's numbers from 2008 look good across the board compared with 2007:

• Alcohol-related deaths dropped from 1,244 to 1,169 — a 6 percent decline. Alcohol-related injuries dropped slightly from 16,208 to 15,736, or 3 percent.

• Drivers ages 15 to 19 still have the highest crash rate of any age group with a license. Yet there was a 17 percent drop in teen fatalities — from 131 to 109. And 29 percent fewer teen passengers were injured, from 118 to 84.

But Tampa Bay still has its problems.

In Hernando, there was one less motorcycle death (eight in 2007 and seven in 2008). But motorcycle injuries went from 99 to 122, a 23 percent increase.

In Pinellas, alcohol-related fatalities jumped from 40 to 51 deaths. Crashes involving vehicle or property damage jumped 14 percent. That's 936 more crashes.

And in Hillsborough, pedestrian fatalities stayed the same (47 deaths in 2007 and 2008) while pedestrian injuries rose 11 percent by 61 more injuries.

But the experts say economics also could play a role in these increases. To save gas, people may be opting to ride motorcycles rather than drive cars.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Ileana Morales and Ryan Strong contributed to this report.

Bad economy gets credit for fewer traffic deaths 07/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 1:53pm]

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