The recession and $4 per gallon gas meant people drove less to save more. Experts also cited record high seat belt use, tighter enforcement of drunken driving laws and the work of advocacy groups that encourage safer driving habits.
Preliminary figures being released by the government Monday show that 37,313 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year. That's 9.1 percent lower than the year before, when 41,059 died, and the fewest since 1961, when there were 36,285 deaths.
A different measure, also offering good news, was the fatality rate, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. It was 1.28 in 2008, the lowest on record. A year earlier it was 1.36.
"The silver lining in a bad economy is that people drive less, and so the number of deaths go down," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Not only do they drive less but the kinds of driving they do tend to be less risky — there's less discretionary driving."
Fatalities fell by more than 14 percent in New England, and by 10 percent or more in many states along the Atlantic seaboard, parts of the Upper Midwest and the West Coast, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Americans should really be pleased that everyone has stepped up here in order to make driving safer and that people are paying attention to that," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
In the past, tough economic times have brought similar declines in roadway deaths. Fatalities fell more than 16 percent from 1973 to 1974 as the nation dealt with the oil crisis and inflation. Highway deaths dropped nearly 11 percent from 1981 to 1982 as President Ronald Reagan battled a recession.
The government said vehicle miles traveled in 2008 fell by about 3.6 percent, to 2.92 trillion miles, indicating many people adjusted their driving habits as gas prices fluctuated and the economy tumbled. The number of miles driven by motorists had risen steadily over the past three decades.
The figures are preliminary; final numbers and state-by-state totals are expected later in the year.
Several states have pushed for tougher seat belt laws that allow law enforcement officers to stop motorists whose sole offense was failing to buckle up. In 27 states and the District of Columbia, there are such enforcement laws. The remaining states have laws that allow tickets for seat belt violations only if motorists are stopped for other offenses. New Hampshire has no seat belt law for adults.
Seat belt use in 2008 climbed to 83 percent, a record. Fourteen states and the nation's capital had rates of 90 percent or better. Michigan had the highest seat belt use rate with 97.2 percent, followed by Hawaii with 97 percent and Washington state at 96.5 percent. Massachusetts had the lowest rate, 66.8 percent, while it was under 70 percent in New Hampshire and Wyoming.
Many states have tried to improve their enforcement of driving laws and public outreach. In South Dakota, for example, state troopers are required to devote several hours a year to give presentations discouraging drunken driving or promoting seat belt use.
"There isn't a civic group in the state that should have to worry about what's going to be on the next agenda for them if they want to have somebody come talk about traffic safety," said Jim Carpenter, South Dakota's highway safety director. Carpenter said an estimated 119 motorists died on South Dakota roads in 2008, compared with 146 in 2007 and 191 in 2006.
But many safety groups said it was unclear if the fatality numbers will continue to drop once the economy improves. If the projections hold, 2008 would be the first year since 1992 when traffic fatalities dipped below 40,000. Even with the declines, more than 100 people die on U.S. roads everyday.
"We still have too many people who are dying in car crashes," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.