SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—The soaring gasoline prices that fueled anger among motorists may have contributed to a drop in highway deaths in Illinois and at least a dozen other states as conservation-minded drivers eased up on their mileage and gas pedals, o
SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—The soaring gasoline prices that fueled anger among motorists may have contributed to a drop in highway deaths in Illinois and at least a dozen other states as conservation-minded drivers eased up on their mileage and gas pedals, officials say. Traffic deaths in Illinois last year slid 16 percent to 1,042 from 1,248 in 2007, preliminary Illinois Department of Transportation figures show. Nationwide, highway deaths for 2008 have been on pace to be the lowest since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began keeping records 42 years ago. No one can say definitively why road fatalities are falling, but the drop-off coincided with Americans sharply curtailing their driving because of record prices at the pump as the economy slumped. "I’m not going to dispute it. I think the high price of fuel had two impacts — people drove less, and people drove smarter," Mike Stout, the department’s safety division director. "We think it’s an important factor," helping explain why Illinoisans drove about 4 percent fewer miles last year. But Stout is loathe to give gasoline all the credit for reducing traffic deaths, pointing to other contributing factors such as the increased use of seat belts, tougher standards for teens to get their license and stepped-up patrols for drunken or aggressive driving. Illinois highway crashes killed 92 teenagers last year — a 40 percent decrease from the 155 who died in 2007. A state law that took effect last year added more hurdles for teenagers wanting their driver’s licenses, doubling to 50 hours the amount of time they must practice driving. The measure also increased from 18 to 19 the age at which teens can talk on cell phones while driving, other than in an emergency. Nationwide traffic fatality numbers for 2008 aren’t yet available. But NHTSA said recently the estimated number of people killed on U.S. highways last year through October totaled 31,110–down nearly 10 percent from 34,502 killed in the same period in 2007. Along the way, Americans drove more than 100 billion fewer miles between November 2007 and October 2008 than the same period a year earlier — the largest continuous decline in American driving in history, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced last month. Federal safety officials say it’s likely safety measures played a role in the decline in fatalities: seat belt use is at its highest level ever, and greater numbers of SUVs and other lights trucks are equipped with technology that prevents rollovers. "The answers are so numerous and equally possible," Doug Hecox, a Federal Highway Administration spokesman, said Thursday. "The probable dominant factor is that drivers are being more careful." Other states say their traffic deaths dropped sharply last year, in many cases with higher gasoline prices getting some credit. According to preliminary numbers, fatalities on Alabama’s rural roads dropped to their lowest level in 23 years in 2008, while deaths on Minnesota’s highways plunged to a 64-year low. ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.