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Highway deaths across the nation are down sharply so far this year compared with 2007, according to preliminary data tracked by state police and transportation agencies.
Deaths declined in 35 of the 37 states that provided data for January through April, May or June. Fatalities also were down in the District of Columbia. Many of the declines were significant -- more than 10% in 30 states, and more than 20% in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Highway deaths rose in only two states that provided data to USA TODAY: from 29 to 31 in Vermont, and from 51 to 55 in Connecticut. Numbers in the other 13 states have not been released. States caution that the numbers are preliminary and include only highways patrolled by state police agencies.
"The decline in fatalities is great news, and 2008 has the potential to be a banner year for highway safety," says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state highway safety offices. "However, it's way too early to reach conclusions about what the trend means. It's impossible to draw significant policy implications from one full year of data, let alone the limited data we have for 2008."
Harsha says high gasoline prices discouraging some Americans from driving might be a factor in the decline of fatalities, but it's "premature" to draw that conclusion. Other factors might be stronger laws for seat-belt use and stepped-up enforcement, she says.
Some police officials attribute the decline to fewer vehicles on the roads. "Although I have no data that would clearly indicate this, I do believe part of our reduction in traffic collisions and deaths can be attributed to fewer miles being driven," says Capt. Curtis Henderson of the Iowa State Patrol. "I think that the only explanation for that kind of decline across the country is fewer vehicle miles traveled."
"The general observation is there appears to be less traffic on the highways and roads," says Sid Gaulden of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety.
Traffic deaths across the USA already were declining before gas prices soared. In 2006, the nation recorded the largest drop in such deaths in more than a decade with 42,642 -- 868 fewer than in 2005. Totals for 2007 are expected this summer.
Contributing: Gwen Purdom, Nicholas Persac, Katharine Lackey and Andrew Seaman