Air bags, poor economy save road lives

Tue Jan 4, 2011 3:44pm EST
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By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Air bags and the economic recession have contributed to the biggest drop in road deaths in the United States since World War II, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.

Changes in driving patterns and safety features both contributed to a 22 percent decline in road deaths between 2005 and 2009, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan said in a report that studied federal data looking for the causes associated with fatal crashes.

"From 2005 to 2009, U.S. road fatalities dropped by 22 percent (from 43,510 to 33,963). A reduction of such magnitude over such a short time has not occurred since road safety statistics were first kept (starting in 1913), except for the reductions during World War II," they wrote in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention.

"We were amazed by the magnitude of this," Sivak said in a telephone interview.

Separately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 85 percent of American drivers say they use seat belts all the time, while 1 in 7 do not.

Traffic deaths in 2009 were the lowest since 1954, the U.S. Department of Transportation said in March.

"The two general factors that we are putting our money on are technological advances, primarily air bags, and the economic downturn," Sivak said.

He and Schoettle analyzed traffic patterns and found, for instance, an overall 4 percent drop in traffic, with notable decreases during rush hour and less traffic on high-speed interstate highways. They also found fewer crashes involving trucks, along with data that less freight is being shipped.   Continued...