There's a bright spot among the dark news cast by the nation's economy -- the recession is keeping drivers off the road and setting record lows for the number of highway fatalities nationwide.
Record-high seat-belt use, an increase in patrolling against speeders and cracking down on drunken drivers also have contributed to the decrease in motorist deaths, highway safety officials said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday that 7,689 motorists were killed from January through March -- a 9 percent decline from a year ago. Motor-vehicle fatalities continued to fall to levels not seen since 1961, when officials began keeping records.
"Clearly a big factor is the economy," said Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "People aren't driving as much -- there aren't as many optional trips being taken right now. We do think that even though speeding has become less of a problem, because of gas prices, people will slow down to save a buck but not necessarily to save a life."
Speeding has been neglected across the nation, and it's a law-enforcement issue that needs attention, he added.
"There's not a political will to enforce it even though speeding contributes to a third of all fatalities," Mr. Adkins said. "The public doesn't see speeding the same way they see other infractions. Anyone who has been on our area roads knows this firsthand. When you're speeding and you're in a crash, it doesn't matter if you're wearing a seat belt or not, you're not likely to survive."
The District's traffic fatalities have decreased in the past decade. As of July 1, 17 motorists died, down two from this time last year. Thirty states and the District have enforced stricter seat-belt laws, allowing police to ticket motorists solely for not wearing their seat belts. The city's 2008 traffic fatalities were 40, down 14 from the year before.
An estimated 37,261 motorists died nationwide in 2008, the fewest since 1961. If this year's trends continue, fewer than 31,000 people will die in 2009. However, motorcycle deaths have increased for the 11th straight year in a row and account for 14 percent of all highway fatalities.
Officials from the Maryland State Highway Administration said traffic fatalities hover at about 600 per year. Last year proved to be a record year as fatalities fell below the average at 592 for the first time since 1999. The highest amount of fatalities statewide was 830 in 1987.
Dana Schrad, executive director for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said rising gasoline prices are forcing some drivers to trade in their four wheels for two.
"Some are purchasing motorcycles for the first time," Ms. Schrad said. "But they are inexperienced motorcycle drivers and, unfortunately, more motorcyclists in the flow of traffic have a much higher risk of being killed. ... Many motorcyclists don't realize how much less visible they are and that they really have to drive defensively to keep themselves safe."
Twelve Virginia motorists, including two motorcyclists, were killed during last year's Fourth of July weekend.