A state expert says the economy is one of the key factors that could lead to 2009 becoming only the second year since World War Two in which state traffic deaths were below 400. Scott Falb tracks accident statistics for the Department of Transportation.

“The recession has both decreased the amount of travel that people have done and has changed the type of travel that people have done,” Falb says. He says they’ve heard a number of stories anecdotally of people changing their plans for vacations or holiday travel periods where they don’t go as far, or haven’t traveled at all.

Also, Falb says layoffs in the state have cut the number of people commuting to work. “Plus the fact that when people are uncertain of their own economic conditions, they drive a little differently, a little less aggressively we think. So that adds into it,” Falb says. Falb says there were 371 traffic fatalities confirmed when the D.O.T. shut down its office for the holiday on December 30th.

Falb says that number will likely increase as it takes awhile to wrap up the year end numbers. Falb says they count every death that occurs within 30 days of the crash where the cause of death appears to be related to the crash. He says there are a number of investigations that are complicated, so it takes longer to get that information. Falb says they usually don’t have the final number for one year until April of the next year, and he says there recently was one case that took a whole year before the death was added into the total.

While the economy is a factor in lowering traffic deaths, he says special enforcement efforts that flood the highways with extra law officers also helped. He says seatbelt, alcohol and speed enforcement all help reduce crashes as those three factors are involved in accidents. Falb says cutting the speed, alcohol use and increasing seatbelt usage all lead to less severe injuries when there are accidents. Falb says the drunk driving enforcement is particularly important.

He says anywhere from one quarter to one fifth of fatal accidents involve alcohol use, and if they could eliminate them, that would cut roughly 100 fatal crashes a year. Falb says this year is setting up statistically much like 2004, the only other year since World War Two where the fatalities were below 400. Falb says 388 people lost their lives on roadways in 2004 and the preliminary number at the end of December was nearly the same as 2009.