Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
he population of the United States was 102 percent larger in 2009 than it was in 1950,1 but motor vehicle fatalities, amazingly, were only 1.9 percent higher in 2009 than they were 50 years earlier. Traffic crashes caused 3,615 fewer deaths in 2009 than they did in 2008, and five states recorded more than 200 fewer traffic deaths in 2009 than in 2008: Florida (422); Texas (405); California (353); Pennsylvania (212); and Georgia (211). Last year’s fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reached a historic low of 1.13, even though VMT increased slightly in 2009 over 2008.2
Across-the-board reductions in motor vehicle fatalities were achieved in 2009, including the following:
- Deaths involving large trucks constituted the largest decline in fatalities between 2008 and 2009 (26 percent). Significantly, 600 of the 865 lives spared in this category were in vehicles other than large trucks.
- For the first time in a dozen years, motorcycle fatalities actually dropped. The 16 percent reduction in 2009 in comparison to 2008 marks the second largest decline, and almost one-quarter of the 3,615 lives saved in 2009 over 2008 were motorcyclists.
- Impaired driving fatalities—those in which the drivers or motorcycle riders who were killed had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or greater—declined 7.4 percent from 11,711 in 2008 to 10,839 in 2009. Impressively, Florida recorded more than 100 fewer alcohol-impaired driving deaths in 2009 than in 2008, while 32 other states and Puerto Rico also saw declines in these fatalities.
- Even though 1,503 fewer unrestrained passenger vehicle occupants died in 2009 than in 2008, 53 percent of those killed last year were not restrained.
- Deaths in urban crashes declined 12 percent; those in rural areas declined 8.2 percent.
- Roadway departure crashes claimed 1,791 fewer lives in 2009 than they did in 2008, while almost 10 percent fewer persons were killed in intersection collisions.
The obvious challenge that law enforcement now faces is whether or not these reductions can be sustained in future years. During a September 9, 2010, press conference, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood may have provided police officers with a clue in this regard. He suggested that a decrease in discretionary trips during these trying economic times may have contributed to the reduction in traffic deaths because they tend to be less safe than planned trips, such as those to and from work. Acting on the secretary’s lead, police agencies can employ reasonable strategies to positively impact traffic deaths; several of them are discussed below:
- As encouraging as last year’s 7.4 percent decline in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities was, approximately 32 percent of traffic deaths in 2009 nevertheless involved drivers or motorcycle riders with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher. While 872 lives were spared by last year’s reduction, 10,839 human beings—our relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers—still died in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has suggested employing sobriety checkpoints between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. to leverage their deterrent value, coupled with saturation or roving patrols between 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., when approximately half of all alcohol-impaired fatalities occur.3 This consistent combination of preventive sobriety checkpoints and high-visibility enforcement efforts at those times and locations when they will achieve the greatest success could continue to decrease these deaths. Agencies can even take this line of attack one step further in this era of diminishing budgets and increased demands for greater effectiveness by adopting the Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) model of simultaneously addressing criminal acts and traffic crashes,4 thereby preventing two of law enforcement’s raisons d’être.
- Of the passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2009 between 6:00 p.m. and 5:59 a.m., 62 percent were unrestrained. This problem is ripe for nighttime seat belt enforcement, which can identify other criminal acts and traffic violations.
- Although motorcycle fatalities fell in 2009 after rising for 11 straight years, more than two out of every five motorcycle riders killed in 2007 and 2008 were not wearing helmets at the time of their crashes.5 This problem needs to be addressed, and the IACP has supported all-rider motorcycle helmet legislation and enforcement.6
Law enforcement officers strive to assist those whom they have chosen to serve professionally. No act can be any more satisfying to a police officer than saving another’s life, especially during this holiday season. Practicing the programs Click It or Ticket and Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest. during each and every tour of duty will continue to yield the beneficial results that law enforcement officers joined their agencies to achieve, therefore allowing us to enjoy more quality time with many more of our friends and associates. ■
1See U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates Program, Population Division, Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1, 1999 (Washington, D.C.: April 11, 2000, revised date: June 28, 2000), http://www.census.gov/population/estimates/nation/popclockest.txt (accessed October 5, 2010); and U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates Program, Population Division, Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2009 (NST-EST2009-01) http://www.census.gov/popest/states/NST-ann-est.html (accessed October 5, 2010).
2NHTSA, “Highlights of 2009 Motor Vehicle Crashes,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, August 2010, DOT HS 811 363, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811363.pdf (accessed October 5, 2010).
3IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 4–7 2008,” 3–4, http://www.theiacp.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=8%2BYT5rFhF3w%3D&tabid=411 (accessed October 5, 2010).
4For additional information, see James H. Burch and Michael N. Geraci, “Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety,” The Police Chief 76 (July 2009): 18–23, http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=1839&issue_id=72009 (accessed October 4, 2010).
5NHTSA, “Motorcycles,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2008 Data, DOT HS 811 159 (October 2009) http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811159.PDF (accessed October 2, 2010).
6International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2007 Resolutions: Adopted at the 114th Annual Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, “Support of Motorcycle Safety Enforcement Initiative,” 30, http://www.iacp.org/resolution/2007Resolutions.pdf and IACP, 2009 Resolutions: Adopted at the 116th Annual Conference in Denver, Colorado, Motorcycle Safety Enforcement Initiative,” 22, http://www.iacp.org/resolution/2009Resolutions.pdf (accessed October 2, 2010).
Please cite as:
Richard J. Ashton, "Crash Deaths Reach Fifty-Year Low: Where Do We Go From Here?" Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 77 (November 2010): 78,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM1110/#/78 (insert access date).