Traffic fatalities drop

BY SAM LANE | FEBRUARY 17, 2010 7:30 AM

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Bob Thompson remembers when he was a young driver in Iowa.

“We were really having a bloodbath on Iowa’s and the nation’s roads,” Thompson, the traffic-records coordinator for the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau said in describing the 1960s.

But now, he and other Iowa traffic officials can happily report a 60-year low in traffic fatalities.

Pending a few cases that may not have been tallied yet, Iowa only had 373 traffic fatalities in 2009, down from an average 427 per year in the last six years.

In Johnson County, numbers have fluctuated over the past five years, but officials saw 11 fatal car crashes in 2009, down from 13 in 2008. Iowa City saw only one fatal crash, a number that has been steady for four years. And through Feb. 15 this year, there have only been 33 fatalities, fewer than in 2009.

A key contributor to the fatality decrease, some say, is the economy. As the country’s economic situation worsens and gas prices rise, people are driving less, Thompson said.

“If you track employment trends and fatalities over the last several decades, they track together. When employment is down, so are fatalities,” Tom Welch, Iowa’s safety engineer, wrote in an e-mail.

But the same economic downturn that may have caused the decrease in fatalities in 2009 had some worried about the state’s ability to keep the number down in coming years.

Despite a 10 percent reduction to the state’s public-safety budget as a result of Gov. Chet Culver’s statewide budget cuts, the Iowa State Patrol has been spared any layoffs. This is largely thanks to redirected grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Jessica Lown, a spokeswoman for the State Patrol, said cuts have caused some refocusing within the patrol. Almost 50 troopers will be exclusively focused on patrolling Iowa’s roadways during high-traffic times.

“I think only time will tell,” Lown said. “Iowans know there are hazards on the roadway. They’re taking note and being smart about it.”

While much of the decrease can be attributed to efforts of the state, officials say drivers are also responsible.

“They can take a lot of pride in that,” said Scott Falb, a driver-safety specialist in the Iowa Department of Transportation. “They need to take a moment and pat themselves on the back for living in a state where we do stuff like that.”

Thompson said vehicles on today’s roads are much safer, from cars’ physical builds to their air bags. In addition, safety-belt and booster-seat use have increased dramatically. Now, roughly 93 percent of Iowans wear seat belts, compared with 20 percent in 1985.

At the same time, state efforts — such as rumble strips, cable barriers, and road repaving — have helped keep drivers safe, officials said.

Nationally, traffic fatalities decreased roughly 8 percent from the first three quarters of 2008 to the first three of 2009.

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