SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Safer roads and more traffic enforcement have helped reduce traffic fatalities in Utah to their lowest level in more than 50 years.
The Utah Department of Transportation said traffic accidents claimed 215 lives last year, a 12-percent drop over 2011 and the lowest level for fatalities since 1960.
Traffic fatalities have generally declined since 2000 with experts crediting better roadway engineering, safer cars, more enforcement and quicker response times by emergency medical crews.
Automakers are adding more air bags to vehicles while traction control and crash-avoidance systems are becoming more common, the experts say. And more people are buckling up, although a third of Utah's fatalities involved people who weren't using seat belts. UDOT estimates half of those victims could have survived by using belts.
Traffic fatalities hit a peak in 1972, when 382 people died, and remained high for decades until 2000, when they started declining, UDOT traffic and safety director Robert Hull said.
One category of traffic fatalities bucks the downward trend: Distracted drivers, many using electronic devices, talking on the phone or eating, Hull said.
UDOT blamed 20 deaths on distracted driving in 2012, up from 15 the year before.
Drunken driving accounted for 41 deaths in 2012, down from 37 a year earlier, while deaths attributed to aggressive driving dropped to 49 from 57.
Hull said roadway engineering represents one of the biggest safety advances of recent years. Many multi-lane highways have been divided by concrete barriers or cables, reducing the likelihood of multiple-fatality accidents from vehicles crossing at high speed into opposing traffic.
Public education has helped, too. Utah promotes a Zero Fatalities campaign with television and radio ads urging seat-belt use. In Utah last year, 67 people died because of improper restraint, down from 75 the previous year.
"Getting people to focus in on it has helped those numbers come down," Hull told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah's population has tripled since 1960, making the decline in fatalities to that level all the more remarkable, he told the newspaper.
Hull envisions a time when no traffic fatalities occur in a year.
"We are on that path, and we are making it happen," he told The Tribune.