CARSON CITY — In a year dominated by news of high unemployment, the recession and declining tax revenue, Nevada fared well in one important area: Far fewer people died in highway accidents in 2009.
In all, 243 people died in accidents last year, a drop of 81 from 2008.
The decline continued a four-year trend. In 2007, 371 people were killed in Nevada accidents and in 2006, 431.
Traci Pearl, the state traffic safety coordinator, on Tuesday attributed the drop to several factors, principally increased enforcement of traffic laws.
"What we have seen is a lot of people are more afraid of getting a ticket than dying," she said.
Enforcement paid off notably in December when the number of statewide deaths was only 14, down from 30 in December 2008.
Lt. Chris Ankeny of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Traffic Bureau attributed the fatality decline in Clark County to increased enforcement along the freeways, particularly in the mornings.
"The morning commuters see the police out there, and that makes them slow down," he said.
According to the state Office of Traffic Safety, 144 people died in traffic accidents in the county in 2009, down from 201 in 2008.
Ankeny was particularly pleased that no one died in the county during New Year’s Eve. At least one person was killed in each of the three previous New Year’s periods.
He said police focused on people driving under the influence, arresting 103 people on drunken driving charges between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. About 900 tickets for traffic violations also were issued during the period.
The Nevada Highway Patrol on New Year’s Eve arrested another 82 drivers on DUI charges, compared with 12 last year.
Ankeny said DUI checkpoints were set up and DUI vans, used to test drivers and quickly process their arrests, also were visible to other motorists through the Las Vegas Valley.
"Everywhere you looked, there was a motor officer," said Ankeny, who believes the police presence caused other motorists to slow down and be more cautious about their driving. "It was amazing how many motor officers were out there."
Ankeny said Las Vegas police in 2010 will continue to concentrate on arresting drunken drivers and having a visible presence on freeways and other roads.
After the number of statewide fatalities reached 431 in 2006, law enforcement agencies, health districts, the emergency management organization and other groups decided to work together on a traffic safety plan that includes increased enforcement of seat belt and impaired driving laws, Pearl said.
The goal, which the agencies reached, was to reduce fatalities by 100 within two years.
They now have a new goal: zero fatalities.
Although that might seem unrealistic, Pearl said, they want the number of fatalities to decline even more in coming years.
Pearl said it costs each drunken driver about $10,000 in various costs, including lawyer fees, after a DUI arrest.
In addition to increased enforcement, Pearl said there has been a decline in the number of miles driven in Nevada and other states since gasoline prices skyrocketed a couple of years ago.
But she said it is not yet known whether the recession has contributed to the decline by reducing the number of visitors and trips taken by residents.
Her Office of Traffic Safety recorded a drop in pedestrian and motorcycle deaths and in alcohol-related fatalities in 2009.
Deaths where alcohol was a factor fell to 78, down from 126 in 2008, while pedestrian fatalities were down to 36, compared to 57 in 2008. The number of motorcyclists killed was 40 in 2009, compared with 57 in 2008.
Pearl said the number of alcohol-related fatalities could change as officers finish investigations from the last few days of 2008. And the number of 2009 deaths could change slightly if hospitalized people die from injuries they received in crashes last year.
Most of the pedestrian deaths were in Clark County, but most of the victims were locals, not tourists, Pearl said.
Many pedestrian deaths were late-night shift workers who tried to cross eight-lane roads with 45 mph speed limits.
Pearl said motorcyclists are not always at fault in their deaths, but too frequently the deaths occur when they try to return home after drinking with fellow bikers in bars.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.