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Secretary Ray LaHood 2009 Motor Vehicle Crashes Press Conference

Good morning.  Thank you for coming.

I’m delighted to share some very good news: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2009 numbers are in.  And we’re pleased to report that traffic fatalities and injuries are the lowest since the first year we started counting, more than six decades ago.

In 2009, highway deaths fell to 33,808, the smallest number since 1950.  Fatality and injury rates fell to the lowest levels ever recorded.  And this progress comes even as Americans drove a greater number of miles than ever before.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment – a landmark achievement for public health and safety. 

But almost 34,000 deaths on our roadways is still unacceptable.  And while we’ve come a long way, we have a long distance yet to travel.

I suspect that, this morning, you’re asking two questions: “Why have the rates and numbers declined?” And “Will they bounce back in the years ahead?”  Let me address those in order.

First, the recipe for roadway safety includes a number of equally important ingredients: Cars are getting safer – as crash avoidance and crash worthiness technologies improve.  Roadways are getting safer – with safer intersections, better signs and lighting, and more effective crash barriers.  Drivers are getting safer – buckling their seatbelts at record rates; not getting behind the wheel when they drink; and keeping their eyes and attention on the road, not their cell phones. 

And, yes, the economy is a contributing factor too.  While more vehicles than ever are on our streets and highways and while Americans are driving those vehicles a greater number of miles than ever before – we believe that “discretionary driving” is on the decline.  Because of the economic downturn, fewer people may be going out for after-work or evening entertainment, which the data suggest are higher-risk trips than the daily commute.

So, when the economy rebounds, will the number of motor vehicle crashes rebound too?  They may.  But while it is true that fatalities and injuries tend to decline during periods of economic contraction, they – historically – have never come all the way back up.  This is good news.  But it’s not an excuse to rest on our laurels.

In President Obama’s administration and this Department of Transportation, we remain laser-focused on safety, our top priority. That means reminding Americans to click it or get a ticket.  That means reminding Americans that if they’re over the limit, they’ll be under arrest.  And that means reminding Americans that the safest way to get from one place to another is to hang up and drive.

One week from Tuesday, DOT will host our second Distracted Driving Summit here in Washington.  I hope you’re all planning to attend.  David Strickland and his tireless team at NHTSA are still crunching the numbers.  But we think they’ll tell a positive story about the progress we’re making toward ending distracted driving, one of the most pressing safety crises America faces today.

So, thank you for joining us to celebrate today’s good news.  America’s roads are the safest they’ve ever been.  But they must be safer.  And we will not rest until they are.

Thursday, September 9, 2010