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Ray LaHood
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speaks at a news conference at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Charles Dharapak

The latest traffic fatality figures from federal officials contain a lot of good news. But it shouldn’t cause traffic safety officials — or drivers themselves — to get complacent.

Traffic deaths fell from 37,423 in 2008 to 33,808 in 2009, a decrease of 9.7 percent.

Illinois experienced a decrease of 13 percent in the same period, dropping from 1,043 in 2008 to 911 last year.

Traffic fatalities in crashes where the driver or motorcycle operator had a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or greater also dropped — from 11,711 in 2008 to 10,839 last year, a drop of 7.4 percent. The figures for Illinois were 356 in 2008 and 319 in 2009, a 10 percent drop.

 A number of factors were cited for the decreases. They include greater use of seat belts, strict enforcement of drunken driving laws and better safety equipment in vehicles, such as side air bags and anti-rollover technology.

Even the economy was cited as a factor, with people making fewer discretionary trips.

But we are not sure a bad economy can get much credit for the reduction, because the rate of deaths per 100 million miles traveled also decreased, from 1.26 deaths per million miles in 2008 to 1.13 per million miles last year.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggested fewer people were driving to bars after work or on the weekend because of the economy and that may be true.

But alcohol-impaired driving fatalities still accounted for nearly a third of all traffic deaths nationally and 35 percent of those in Illinois last year. That shows there is much room for improvement and work to be done in changing attitudes and keeping drunken drivers off our highways.

The 33,808 traffic deaths last year is the lowest number of deaths on our roads since 1950, when significantly fewer vehicles were on the road. But that’s still more than 10 times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

If an outside force was responsible for these traffic deaths, the country would be up in arms. But, because we, in effect, do this to ourselves, we don’t treat the problem with the same sense of urgency.

And, as we decrease the number of people who drink and drive, are we replacing them with people who text and drive or talk on cell phones and drive?

These distractions can lower reaction times to a point that is little different from an alcohol-impaired driver.

Let’s make a concerted effort to keep decreasing the number of traffic deaths, through law enforcement and our own behaviors.


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