United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Monday that the number of traffic deaths on U.S. roads last year reached a record low.
The data for 2008 was brought together by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and estimated that 37,313 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year.
This is the lowest number of deaths on U.S. roads since 1961, when 36,285 lives were lost.
The nation also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded in 2008 at 1.28 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.36 in 2007.
This latest count represents all fatalities, including from accidents involving passenger vehicles, motorcycles and scooters and pedestrians.
It is too soon to determine whether or not improving or worsening numbers of motorcycle-related fatalities helped toward the decreased overall number.
The actual number of deaths in 2008 for motorcycle accidents will not be available for at least another month or more.
The year 2007, however, had been the worst year for motorcycle deaths since researchers began collecting data in 1975.
In 2007, 5,037 died in motorcycle crashes, and NHTSA estimated those on motorcycles were 35 times more likely per vehicle mile traveled to die in a traffic accident.
Further, motorcycle deaths have been trending progressively higher since 1997, even when factored for increased registrations, while passenger vehicle fatalities over that time have been trending lower.
Even so, whether or not the motorcycle fatality numbers break their streak, remains to be seen.
At this point, it is anyone’s guess, and NHTSA officials hesitated to speculate.
Nor is it impossible that motorcycle fatalities have actually decreased for 2008.
It is known that many people chose to travel less last year.
The price of gas, and the recession in general, have been partially blamed (credited) for decreased overall vehicle miles traveled, and thus fewer accidents.
NHTSA is also crediting seat belt usage as a factor in the passenger vehicle safety record, and said percentage of users overall continued to climb.
New state-by-state data shows that Michigan had the highest seat belt use, while Massachusetts had the lowest.
In Michigan, the belt use rate was 97.2 percent in 2008. In Massachusetts, it was 66.8 percent.
While the decreased numbers of fatalities were used also as a plug for increased seat belt usage, NHTSA was silent with regards to helmet usage – or lack thereof.
NHTSA also strongly advocates helmet usage by motorcyclists.
State-by-state repeal of helmet laws in at least 30 states since 1975 has been shown by NHTSA as a significant reason for the worsening safety stats for motorcyclists.
For now however, the jury is out until it is known whether motorcycle fatalities in 2008 decreased, increased, or remained the same.
And likewise, time will tell whether or not improved overall fatality numbers dropped partially because motorcycle numbers dropped, or in spite of them again having not.

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