The U.S. Department of Transportation released 2009 traffic fatality statistics last week. The numbers indicated the lowest rate of traffic deaths ever. Driving distance also is down from its peak in 2007, so this also means the total number of deaths is down — impressively, down 8.9 percent from the year before. And highway fatalities is a suitable proxy for the seriousness of traffic accidents, so the decline indicates a decline in traffic accidents and injuries.
As you would expect, the Department of Transportation cites its own programs as causing the decline in crashes. However, economic trends may be more important factors. The biggest cause for the decline in traffic accidents, I have to imagine, is the decline in employment. This has made commuting roads less crowded, and when roads are less crowded, it is less likely that one car will collide with another, or will run off the road to avoid a collision with another car.
It seems plausible, also, that the continuing cultural movement away from beer is having an effect on drivers. Beer puts drinkers in an overconfident state in which they are likely to take unnecessary risks — and among alcoholic beverages, beer is more associated with daytime and early evening hours when traffic may be heavier. The Treasury Department reported a 1.1 percent decline in beer from 2008 to 2009, generally consistent with the continuing decline in the prominence of beer since its peak in the late 1990s.
Many other changes also occurred in 2009, including a change in the vehicle mix, with fewer SUVs and more sedans, and a change in consumer sentiment, perhaps putting drivers in a more serious mood. With so many things changing at once, we can only guess at the relative importance of each individual change.