By Yoshiaki Nohara Herald Writer
The number of people killed on Washington roads dropped last year to its lowest point since 2002, partly because of the state’s emphasis on improving dangerous highways statewide.
Last year, 568 people died in traffic accidents statewide, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. That’s 91 fewer deaths than occurred in 2002, when 659 people died.
“We are making progress; we are doing the right things,” said Lowell Porter, director of the safety commission, which is based in Olympia.
The state agency keeps track of deaths on all the public roads statewide, based on accident reports from law enforcement agencies. About 49 percent of all the road deaths last year — or 277 deaths — occurred on state highways. The rest happened along city and county roads.
The number of road deaths seems to be going down this year, too, in Washington and many other states. Nationwide, researchers with the National Safety Council report a 9 percent drop in motor vehicle deaths overall through May, compared with the first five months of 2007.
No one can say definitively why road fatalities are falling, but it is happening as record-high gas prices discourage people from driving. Officials from various states also cite other factors such as police cracking down on speeders and drunken drivers, as well as better teen-licensing programs, safer vehicles and winter weather that kept many drivers at home.
Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said that road improvements funded by 2003 and 2005 gas tax increases and the enforcement of safety laws have brought down the death rate.
“Certainly, it’s good news,” said Clibborn, who is in charge of the House Transportation Committee. “Imagine that includes an increase in the number of drivers.”
In 2007, the state’s traffic death rate was 1 death for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2006, the rate was 1.12.
The new statistics were reported to Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this month.
In Washington, the state’s Corridor Safety Program has made a difference cracking down on dangerous highways statewide, Porter said.
Since 1991, the program was used to reduce injury and fatal collisions along 28 roads statewide, according to the safety commission. State officials work with local residents and agencies for up to two years to improve a safety corridor.
The more the public gets involved, the safer a highway becomes, Porter said.
“The public has done a lot to create this success story,” he said.
Four highways are now designated as safety corridors — one each in Snohomish County, Seattle, Vancouver and the Spokane Valley.
U.S. 2 became one of those corridors just last year, making federal money available to do low-cost, short-term education, enforcement and engineering projects to improve the highway. Since 1999, 49 people have been killed in crashes and accidents along the narrow, winding highway between Snohomish and Stevens Pass.
Local residents and government officials now meet regularly to discuss how to make the highway safer.
“It’s a little too early to tell whether it’s going to be effective,” State Patrol trooper Keith Leary said.
The Associate Press contributed to this report.
Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.