Fewer people died in car crashes in Arizona last year than in any year since 1993, according to new figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In 2009, 807 people died on the roads in Arizona. That marks a 14 percent drop from the previous year, when 938 people were killed. The new data also shows that the national fatality rate dropped to the lowest ever recorded and that the number of people killed in car crashes was the smallest since 1950.
Twice before, during the recessions of the 1980s and early 1990s, Arizona's highways and byways saw the death toll ease below 900; but not since the mid-1970s has it consistently been that low.
Figures are not yet available for the current year, but Arizona Department of Public Safety officers report roughly the same number of crashes this year as by the same time last year.
Agency spokesman Bart Graves said that since Arizona canceled its experiment with photo-enforcement cameras in mid-July, "we're not noticing any difference on the roadways."
"Motorists, by and large, still slow down for the cameras," he said.
The now-inoperative cameras will be removed by November.
Speeding, along with drunkenness and high non-usage rates for seat belts and other safety devices, have historically been leading drivers of highway fatalities, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that alcohol-impaired driving deaths fell 7 percent nationally last year. In Arizona, alcohol was a factor in 16 percent fewer road deaths.
For decades, Arizona has exceeded the national average in driving-fatality rates, but that gap has been closing rapidly in recent years.
In 2008, the Arizona rate fell to its all-time low of 1.52 fatalities per 100 million miles of travel. That was 20 percent worse than the national rate of 1.26 deaths per 100 million miles. A decade earlier, Arizona's fatality rate was 37 percent worse than the national average. And 30 years ago, Arizona motorists died 63 percent more often than the rest of the nation.
The national rate fell again last year to 1.13 fatalities per 100 million miles, even though Americans drove slightly more in 2009 than the year before. Arizona's fatality rate is not available yet.
Arizona benefits from being a younger state. Because most development is relatively recent, the roads are newer and designed to safer, more modern standards. That means wider lanes and shoulders, better signs, smoother curves and banks, more guard rails, and more innovations such as rumble strips — ruts in the sides of highways that alert drivers when they veer off the road.
"These are things people drive by every day which they may or may not notice. But they all contribute to make our roads safer," said Laura Douglas, an Arizona Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Rumble strips, for example, reduce the accident rate by a third, she said.
ADOT also paints extra-thick road stripes, installs new guard rails that cushion crashes and uses larger, easier-to-see traffic signals, Douglas said.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com