OLYMPIA – Deadly crashes on Washington roads are at their lowest level in more than 50 years, state officials said Tuesday.
Preliminary statistics show 522 traffic-related deaths last year – the lowest total since 1955, when 461 people died.
The 2008 fatality total still could climb higher, since final statistics won’t be ready until the end of this year. But police and transportation officials say they’re encouraged by the overall downward trend in crashes, serious injuries and deaths in Washington.
The number of collisions is decreasing even as driving increases. For example, there were about 2,500 fatal or serious injury crashes in 1990. But the figure dropped to about 1,000 last year, even though the number of miles traveled went up by about a third.
The state Traffic Safety Commission says 96.5 percent of Washington drivers use their seat belts, the third-highest rate in the nation. Michigan and Hawaii are the top states for seat belt use. Failing to wear a seat belt in Washington can net drivers and adult passengers a $124 ticket, and drivers can be pulled over just for failing to wear a seat belt.
“We have been strictly enforcing the state’s seat belt law, and that appears to be paying dividends,” Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said in a press release.
Officials also credit advances in emergency medical care for helping to drive down the number of fatalities.
“My troopers are witnessing miracles at the side of the road,” Batiste said. “Paramedics are saving people who just a few years ago would have certainly become statistics.”
At first, state leaders thought the drop in fatalities might simply be tied to less driving, stemming from high gas prices and the poor economy. But further analysis showed that the “fatality rate” – the number of traffic deaths per 100 million miles traveled – was down.
Last year’s fatality rate was 0.94 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. That’s slightly lower than 2007’s fatality rate of 1, and about half the 1990 rate of 1.85 deaths, the state said.