Deaths on roads drop 17 percent

Published 8:20 pm Wednesday, January 7, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Traffic deaths on Alabama’s rural roads dropped to their lowest level in 23 years in 2008 due to stricter enforcement, new safety features on roads and soaring gas prices that led to less driving, state officials said Wednesday.

Alabama’s state troopers recorded 633 fatal accidents on rural roads, including interstate highways. That’s down 17 percent from last year’s 766 fatalities and is the lowest number since the state recorded 618 deaths on rural roads in 1985, Gov. Bob Riley said at a news conference.

Fatal traffic accidents on urban roads are worked by city and county law enforcement. Their numbers are still being compiled, but traditionally they account for about one-third of the traffic deaths in Alabama. Preliminary numbers indicate urban traffic deaths also declined in 2008.

Alabama’s experience parallels what’s going on nationally. Through October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said traffic deaths nationwide were down nearly 10 percent from the same period the prior year.

In 2006, Alabama recorded 1,207 deaths on urban and rural roads, the highest total since 1973. Since then, the rate has declined.

“When it comes to saving lives, Alabama is moving in the right direction,” Riley said at a news conference with Public Safety Director Chris Murphy, Transportation Director Joe McInnes and Economic and Community Affairs Director Bill Johnson.

They offered several explanations:

$4 per gallon gas prices caused Alabamians to drive less, as shown by the state’s 2 percent drop in gas tax revenue. But Riley said Alabama’s 17 percent decline in traffic deaths, compared to the national decrease of nearly 10 percent, showed other factors had an effect.

State agencies analyzed the locations and most likely times of day of fatal accidents. They used the information to focus state trooper patrols and to fix highway safety problems.

The Department of Transportation is spending $50 million to widen two-lane roads to prevent accidents caused by running off the road. It has spent $15 million since 2003 to add median barriers on interstate highways with narrow medians to prevent fatal accidents where cars cross the median. Interstate 20 in St. Clair County, once one of Alabama’s deadliest stretches, saw a significant drop in accidents after the dividers were added.

State troopers conducted more speeding and drunken driving crackdowns and increased their use of patrol cars that look like regular autos except for markings on the passenger side. They also started patrolling on motorcycles and tractor-trailer rigs to find aggressive drivers going at high speeds and weaving in and out of traffic.