Based on preliminary figures, traffic related deaths in California have hit an all time low in 2009.
Although many factors were at work, officials credit increased enforcement and improved driving habits among the public as significant factors behind the improvement. Despite the optimistic reports, law enforcement officials and policymakers say there is still much more room for improvement.
The California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) is a government organization that is responsible for tracking traffic safety data including fatalities that occur on state roads. Lower numbers of fatalities have been a trend over the last 10 years in California, said OTS spokesperson Chris Cochran. The statistics for 2009 are not complete, but last year was a record for safety.
“As far as why [there have been less deaths], there are many reasons. There is no one cause, but probably a dozen,” Cochran said. “For instance there were simply less miles driven in 2009.”
Due to a slow economy, people are driving less, leading to fewer accidents.
There are also downturns in behavioral causes of accidents. Bad driving habits associated with collisions, including alcohol-related deaths, are decreasing. According to the COTS 2008 traffic safety report card, fatalities involving drunk drivers decreased by 20.01 percent in California since 2005. Increased public awareness has been helpful.
“People are saying, ‘I’m going to drive better,'” Cochran said.
Cell phone use while driving is now a major source of danger. The National Safety Council estimates nearly 25 percent of collisions in 2008 were caused by the distraction, according to an OTS press release.
“In the 20th century we knew what was killing us on our roads, things like alcohol, and drugs, speeding, reckless driving, unsafe cars and dangerous roads,” said OTS Director Christopher J. Murphy in a written statement. “The 21st century has brought us a new and troubling danger – the use of cell phones.”
In 2008 hands-free laws banned the use of mobile phones by motorists unless they utilize an earpiece.
“Unfortunately we are still citing thousands of people a month for using their cell phones,” said CHP Spokesperson Jaime Coffee. “One hundred percent of your attention needs to be on the road. Even a one or two second distraction can result in tragedy and multi-tasking drivers put innocent people at risk.”
Coffee believed it was still taking people time to get adjust to the new cell phone laws, similar to how laws requiring seat belt took time to become routine in the 20th century. California’s seat belt use rate was 95.7 percent in 2009, according to the OTS website.
Fatal collisions in Yolo County have seen a dramatic decrease. Between 2006 and 2009 traffic deaths here may have dropped as much as 56 percent.
“I feel safe driving in the area,” said Jennifer Allison, a senior history major. “Mostly I feel safe because there isn’t that much traffic and congestion. Traffic and congestion are the main things I worry about on the road.”
SAMUEL A. COHEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.