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      Highway deaths at record low in first half of 2009

      WASHINGTON (AP) " Deaths on U.S. highways have dropped to a record low during the first six months of 2009, continuing a recent trend of fewer people dying on roads.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported Friday that 16,626 people died in traffic crashes between January and the end of June, a 7 percent decline from the same period last year. It followed up on a record low number of deaths achieved for that period in 2008, when an estimated 37,261 motorists died, the fewest since 1961.

      Safety experts said the decline in roadway deaths followed similar patterns formed during the early 1980s and early 1990s, when sluggish economic factors led many motorists to cut back on discretionary travel. Highway deaths have dropped steadily since 2005.

      "The recession is probably the biggest contributor but it's not the only contributor," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies.

      Highway safety officials also reported a decline in the fatality rate, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. It fell to 1.15 during the first half of 2009, compared with a record low " at the time " of 1.27 in 2008.

      Harsha and others noted that seat belt use has climbed to an all-time high, many new vehicles offer safety-enhancing side air bags and anti-rollover technologies and authorities have stepped up enforcement of drunken driving laws.

      Seat belt use climbed to 84 percent in 2009, helped by many states allowing police to stop a vehicle for a seat belt violation, even if this is the only violation the officers notice.

      Side air bags that protect the head and torso area are standard equipment on nearly 65 percent of 2009 vehicles, compared with only about one in every four new vehicles in 2004, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Electronic stability control, which helps motorists avoid rollover crashes, is standard on 74 percent of new vehicles in 2009, compared with 22 percent in 2004.

      States have actively promoted efforts to reduce drunken driving and the federal government recently pledged to push for tougher laws against distracted driving and drivers who type out text messages from behind the wheel.

      Anne McCartt, vice president for research with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the safety advances and more attention to unsafe driving could keep the numbers low when the economy improves.

      "There's reason to be hopeful that we won't just bounce right back to the same level of deaths," McCartt said.


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