Forty-four fewer people died in motor vehicle accidents in Maryland last year than in 2008, a decline of more than 7 percent, even as the number of alcohol-related driving deaths rose 12 percent.
The lower death toll could be associated with a decline in driving amid the recession, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
"It is possible that not only has driving dropped due to increased unemployment, but that … people have cut back on discretionary travel," an NHTSA report said. It's also possible that with fewer drivers on the road, there is less congestion and less chance of multiple-car crashes.
The trend in Maryland, reported Thursday, paralleled a 9.7 percent decline in highway deaths nationally. But the number of alcohol-related deaths in Maryland increased by 17, or 12 percent, even as the national count declined.
In all, 162 people died in alcohol-related accidents in Maryland last year, compared with 145 in 2008.
National Highway Transportation Safety Administrator David Strickland hailed the national decline in highway deaths as "tangible benefits of seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns."
"But we are still losing more than 30,000 lives a year on our highways, and about a third of those involve drunk driving," he said in a news release.
Caroline Cash, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Maryland, said, "For us, it means … there are 162 families that are devastated by a completely preventable crime."
A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley called the decline in traffic deaths "encouraging," but said the spike in alcohol-related fatalities is "obviously troubling."
Shaun Adamec said O'Malley would continue to seek stiff penalties for drunken drivers and repeat offenders, and would support the ignition interlock bill if it is reintroduced. The governor is also committed to investments in the first responder network, including $50 million for new medevac helicopters.
Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said that despite safer cars, safer highways, better trauma facilities and one of the highest seat-belt compliance rates in the nation, some Marylanders still drink and drive, and threaten others' safety.
Maryland law enforcement officers arrest more than 25,000 people a year for drunken driving — more than 300 during the Labor Day weekend alone, he said.
"We know they're still out there," Shipley said. "Figures like [the NHTSA data] show us the deadly consequences drunk drivers create."
Highway deaths nationally fell to 33,808 in 2009, the lowest since 1950, the NHTSA report said. More than 54,000 people died on the roads in 1972, the peak for reported highway deaths.
While seat-belt laws, design improvements in highways and cars, and tougher drunken-driving legislation might explain much of the decline, economic factors may also be at work.
An NHTSA analysis reported in June noted that the previous two largest drops in highway fatalities also occurred during times of recession, in the early 1980s and early 1990s.
The agency said the declines in fatalities tend to level off 30 months after the start of the recession and then rebound. For the current recession, which began officially in December 2007, the 30th month was June.
Highway fatalities were up last year in just nine states, all with relatively small populations and few highway deaths: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont, which had one more death in 2009 than in 2008.
Alcohol-related road fatalities were up last year in 17 states. The biggest jumps by percentage were in states with relatively small populations: Vermont, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Hawaii.
"It's clear that our law enforcement officers are doing their jobs when they are arresting between 24,000 and 25,000 people a year in Maryland," Cash said. "Now it's up to our lawmakers in Annapolis to protect the citizens and pass an ignition interlock law. And we challenge them to pass that law first when the session begins in 2011."
Christine Delise, a spokeswoman for AAA in Maryland, said the organization will continue to advocate for more use of ignition interlock devices for repeat DUI offenders, "as well as first-time offenders with excessive … blood-alcohol content."
On the final day of the last legislative session, a plan to require an ignition interlock device on the vehicles of those convicted of drunken driving was declared dead for 2010 by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The state Senate had unanimously approved the measure, but it never came up for a vote in Vallario's committee.