First the good news: Fewer people died on the nation's roads last year than in any year since 1950. Credit many variables: Safer vehicles, greater use of seat belts and air bags, bigger advertising campaigns targeting teens and fewer drunken drivers. The bad news is that the states could have saved even more lives by taking the next reasonable step of banning texting while driving. Florida should adopt a ban next year.
The gains in safety are a real achievement. Traffic deaths fell 10 percent in 2009, to 33,808 from 37,423 the year before. That's 3,615 people who did not lose their lives and were not taken away from their friends and families. Floridians can take special comfort; the state led the nation with 422 fewer deaths, a 14 percent drop. Safer highways should be a point of pride that the state looks to build upon.
Experts know what works: Technology that makes vehicles safer, a societal focus on reducing drunken driving and more effective traffic enforcement. The weak economy also could have played a role, as fewer cash-strapped Americans hit the bar and restaurant scene. But the drop in fatalities shows that real gains are possible with concerted safety efforts. Fewer people died on the roads last year even though the number of miles motorists traveled increased from 2008. Yet 93 deaths a day on the highways is still a tragedy.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to push the states to maintain their focus on responsible driving. For all the safety gains, 2.2 million people were injured in accidents last year, a huge and enduring hardship on families and the economy. One-third of all road deaths are alcohol-related. State and local governments have a long way to go to remove these killers from the highway.
Florida can attack reckless driving on a new front by joining the nearly two dozen states that ban texting while driving. The House this year killed such a measure, despite the common sense that texting distracts and slows a driver's response time. The Legislature needs to side with public safety and adopt the bill next year. As the decline in traffic deaths show, motorists are open to changing their behavior. But they need a strong message first.