What's Saving the Lives of Texas Drivers?

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(Houston, TX - Wendy Siegle, KUHF)  The nightly news here focuses on mangled cars, strewn across Texas freeways.  The reports tallying the number of daily highway fatalities feel incessant.  So you might think deadly traffic accidents across Texas are on the rise.

But hard data don’t lie, and it appears fewer people are actually dying in car accidents after all. The number has been steadily decreasing over the years, and in 2009, there was an 11 percent decline in crash fatalities from the year before. Eleven percent is significant, considering the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) puts the year-on-year decrease in Texas from 2007 to 2008 at a mere two percent.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), 3,089 people died on Texas highways last year; that’s 388 less than in 2008.  TxDOT’s Kelli Petras says the drop in fatalities took the agency by surprise. “We are very fortunate to have received this low number. We’ve been trying really hard to get our fatality numbers down,” she said.

Drivers across the state have been good, it seems. They’re driving more safely and heeding seatbelt laws. But it’s more than just changes in driving behavior. TxDOT says the reduction is also the result of number of safety projects aimed at making Texas highways safer for drivers. TxDOT has allocated $1.2 billion from the Texas Safety Bond Program since 2005 for projects specifically designed to shrink the number of crashes on its roadways.

Petras points out that things like widening roads, adding left turn lanes, and putting up concrete barriers helps curb the number of severe accidents . Wider lanes means drivers have more room for error; creating left turn lanes means traffic won’t pile up when a car is waiting to cross traffic and installing barriers means vehicles are less likely to veer off into oncoming traffic. “If we continue to do things to our highways that make them safer then hopefully we’ll be able to decrease the 3,000 to 2,000 next year, and eventually get to zero fatalities,” Petras said.

This reduction in fatalities isn’t unique to Texas. In its preliminary crash data for 2009, NHTSA estimates that 33,963 deaths were caused by crashes in 2009, down 8.9 percent from 2008. Still, Texas transportation authorities can celebrate that the Lone Star state’s decrease is higher than the national average.

Of course 3,000 traffic fatalities in a year is still a staggering number - that’s more than eight deaths per day. And despite the dwindling number of fatalities over the years, Texas ranks high in crash-related deaths. The state had 17% more traffic fatalities per 100 million miles traveled than California and 40% more than New York, according to 2007 NHTSA data.