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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Audie Cornish.


And Im Robert Siegel.

As we close in on New Year's Eve, drivers will be warned of the dangers on the roads, especially about alcohol. Drinking is increasingly a factor in roadside fatalities.

But overall, the number of people killed on American roads has fallen dramatically, by more than 20 percent in recent years. A new study shows two likely reasons - safer cars and a slower economy.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON: Think about all the new stuff you can get with your car that could make it safer, things you couldnt get a few years ago. There's anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags...

Ms. NANCY WHITE (Director, Public Relations, Triple A): The backup camera. You have the backup avoidance beeping. The blind spot technology.

GLINTON: Nancy White of AAA, The Auto Club, could keep on listing the new safety features on cars. She says all those new bells and whistles have had an effect. Theyve made being on the road safer.

Ms. WHITE: 2009 saw a record decrease in traffic fatalities. Its great news, but we're still looking at a death every 15 minutes on the road.

GLINTON: But that number is down by historic proportions. To give you an idea, in 2005, there were nearly 44,000 road-related deaths. In 2009, there were about 34,000 - a 22 percent drop.

Nancy White says it's not just safer cars, it's things like more roundabouts instead of four-way stop signs, more seat belts worn, and...

Ms. WHITE: I think we can't ignore the fact that the economy has played a role in the number of fatalities and the decrease of people out there on the road.

GLINTON: Michael Sivak is with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. Sivak says the weak economy has reduced driving deaths in almost every conceivable way.

Dr. MICHAEL SIVAK (Head, Human Factors Division, Transportation Research Institute, University of Michigan): You're also driving slower, trying to conserve gasoline.

GLINTON: We usually think of unemployment as a bad thing. But...

Dr. SIVAK: We have seen reductions during rush hour, suggesting that the increase in unemployment has affected the amount of driving during rush hours.

GLINTON: There's been a larger reduction of deaths on interstates than on roads. Sivak says that means people went on fewer vacations. And finally...

Dr. SIVAK: Truck fatal crashes were reduced more than passenger fatal crashes, suggesting to us that the reductions in freight shipment have contributed substantially to the overall improvement in the picture.

GLINTON: There are still some problematic areas. Deaths related to inattentive driving up, and deaths related to alcohol use are also up. And then there are motorcycles.

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

GLINTON: Motorcycle fatalities have gone up. That could be related to the weak job market for younger people.

Mr. BOB HENIG (Owner, Bob's BMW Motorcycles): Im Bob Henig. Im a rider and Im an enthusiast. And I own Bob's BMW Motorcycles.

GLINTON: Henig is 56. He personally owns more than 60 motorcycles and has had a motorcycle shop in Maryland for more than 30 years. Henig says he's noticed a change in who buys motorcycles, or toys, as he calls them.

Mr. HENIG: The toys, you know, are not inexpensive. And so as a result of that, the financial wherewithal is bringing an older clientele to the table.

GLINTON: Those older clients, according to the University of Michigan study, could be a part of why the motorcycle deaths have gone up. Older people getting on bikes for the first time are less experienced and more likely to get in trouble.

Henig says most of those motorcycles deaths could be prevented with more training.

Mr. HENIG: Nobody gets to fly a plane without proper training. It's the same thing. If you learn the right way from the very beginning, it's always a better experience.

GLINTON: Henig says if everyone thought about the risk they're taking, the roads would get safer, even when the economy gets better.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Washington.

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