State officials are reporting there were fewer traffic fatalities in Iowa last year than anytime since 1944. David Stutz, with the Iowa Department of Transportation, credits a number of safety improvements made to highways and interstates.

“Engineers have designed rumble strips, paved shoulders and they’ve looked at the grade of roadways in terms of visibility. They’ve also installed cable barriers that keep vehicles from crossing over the interstate and having crashes on the opposite side,” Stutz said.

There were 364 fatalities on Iowa roadways in 2011, down from 390 the previous year. Stutz said many lives were saved last year because motorists were wearing a seat belt. Iowa has one of the highest seat belt usage rates in the country, but Stutz said there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“Of those 364 that lost their lives, 116 were not using their seat belts,” Stutz said. Other factors that may’ve contributed to the decline in traffic fatalities include new laws that prohibit texting while driving and aim to increase the skill sets of younger drivers.

Stutz notes there are more vehicles than ever traveling Iowa’s roads, but those vehicles are much safer than decades ago. “We went through that muscle car era in the 1960s and early 70s and we’ve kind of transcended out of that,” Stutz said. “Perhaps those big, high performance vehicles being driven too recklessly on the street is somewhat of the past now.”

This year, so far, has been a dangerous one on Iowa roadways. The D.O.T. reports there were 40 fatal crashes in January. That compares to just 19 fatalities in January 2011.