RALEIGH — The number of people killed on North Carolina’s roads increased slightly last year, but remains hundreds lower than a few years ago, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the state Department of Transportation.
The NCDOT says 1,224 people were killed as the result of automobile accidents last year, including 23 bicyclists and 170 pedestrians. That compares with an annual average of 1,560 between 2001 and 2006 and is down from a recent peak of 1,702 in 2007.
The change mirrors a downward trend in highway fatalities nationwide. Automobile deaths in the state are the lowest since 1959, despite growth in population and the number of vehicles on the road, said Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill.
The decline can be attributed to two main factors, Goodwin said.
First, fatalities tend to ebb and flow according to the state of the economy. Goodwin points to a drop of 236 deaths between 2007 and 2008, the year the recession began.
“As the economy improves, people drive more, work more,” Goodwin said, leading to more fatalities on the roads.
While the economy has improved, employment and spending have not returned to their pre-recession highs, helping keep highway fatalities down.
Goodwin also cites improved safety measures as a big factor in the decline of automobile deaths. Features such as anti-lock brakes and air bags help, but researchers say a bigger factor is the increased use of seat belts.
“In North Carolina, approximately 90 percent of drivers and passengers wear seat belts,” Goodwin said.
The number of people wearing seat belts was given a boost by the state’s Click It or Ticket campaign, which increased enforcement of the state’s seat-belt laws, said Don Nail of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. Nail estimates that when the program began in 1993 only about 60 percent of drivers and passengers wore their seat belts.
Nail says another campaign, focused on speeding, has also yielded results. The DOT reported 319 speed-related fatalities in 2012, down from 335 the year before, and Nail says the No Need 2 Speed campaign, launched in 2009, deserves some of the credit. The campaign uses a combination of improved signage and increased enforcement to help reduce speeding on the state’s roads.
The number of highway deaths related to drunk driving also has declined. The State Highway Patrol, which handles accidents on highways and rural roads, investigated 204 fatal collisions where alcohol was a factor last year, down from 366 in 2011. First Sgt. Jeff Gordon attributes the decline to programs such as Booze It and Lose It, which help educate the public about the dangers of drinking and driving.
“People are making appropriate decisions, choosing a designated driver, calling a cab,” Gordon said.
The decrease in alcohol related deaths also follows a national trend. Gordon says the patrol’s goal is to someday have no alcohol related deaths on North Carolina’s highways.