The number of people killed in traffic accidents in Florida has dropped to a record low, and state transportation officials think part of the reason is a recently expanded law allowing officers to better enforce seat belt use.
Traffic crashes killed 2,563 people last year, or 1.3 per every 100 million miles driven on Florida roads, officials said. That rate was down from 2008, when 2,983 died in crashes, and from 2007, when 3,221 people were killed, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. All of the fatalities involved at least one motor vehicle; some involved pedestrians or bicyclists.
Last year, lawmakers passed an expanded "primary" seat belt law, which allows officers to pull over a vehicle if they see seat belts aren't in use. State law requires drivers, front seat passengers and children 5 or younger to buckle up.
Before the revised law, which took affect in June 2009, officers were only allowed to pull over drivers younger than 18 for the violation; for adults, seat belt tickets were typically tacked on after other infractions.
Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Welch said officials attribute several factors to the decline, including increased education about seat belt use and the dangers of texting while driving. He also said fewer drivers are hitting the road in a weak economy.
Welch added that automobile fatalities generally have been falling since 1967, a trend that can be linked to safer cars.
In St. Petersburg, law enforcement officials also have noticed a drop in traffic fatalities. Lt. Bill Korinek, the traffic commander, said there have been 10 fatalities involving automobiles so far this year, putting the city in line to fall below last year's numbers. In 2009, there were 23 fatal crashes and in 2008 there were 33.
Korinek said it's too early too tell if the expanded seat belt law is having an effect. He hopes it is, but also thinks that the city's efforts to educate the public and design better roads are factors.
In Pasco, Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Tobin said deputies recently stepped up seat belt enforcement as part of the national Click It or Ticket campaign. Fatality statistics for Pasco were not immediately available.
"When you don't have a seat belt, your body keeps moving and the car stops," Tobin said. "A lot of the time the people who buckle up are the ones who can walk away from an accident."
Reach Luis Perez at (727)892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.