Traffic deaths in Louisiana have plummeted nearly 30 percent, in part because the simple act of fastening a safety belt has hit record levels.
“All that equates to saving lives,” said John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.
Traffic fatalities statewide totaled 703 in 2013, the latest year available and down from 993 deaths in 2007.
And the trend is no fluke.
Road fatalities plummeted 25 percent from 2000-2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The decline was the 20th best in the U.S., the survey showed. The national average was a 22 percent decline.
Crashes fell 23 percent during the same period, the 19th best in the nation.
Top state officials emphasize that it is a variety of changes, not any magic bullet, that has led to improvements in traffic safety.
“There was no strategic effort that I am aware of that would have contributed to the big drop,” said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.
Even the downturn in the economy starting eight years ago gets some credit, with fewer people doing discretionary driving, and especially those 18 to 25 years old, who are most prone to accidents.
Improved technology on cars and trucks is also cited.
However, more drivers fastening safety belts when they get behind the wheel is one of the key factors cited in the rise of safer roads.
LeBlanc noted that, in the early 1980s, only 12 percent of drivers complied with safety belt laws. Now the rate is 85.9 percent, an all-time high and just under the national average of 87 percent.
“The statistics tell us when we go up one percent, eight lives are saved,” LeBlanc said. “I think that has an impact on it.”
Even back seat riders are more safety conscious.
When the law passed in 2008 to mandate back seat usage less than one in three passengers — 27 percent — did so. Last year, the backseat buckle up rate was nearly 70 percent.
“It has gone up gradually each year,” LeBlanc said.
The plunge in traffic deaths is a trend that has been going on for years.
In 2009, traffic deaths in Louisiana dropped to their lowest levels since 1984.
Wilson said two lesser-known additions — cable barriers and rumble strips — have helped trim traffic fatalities.
The cables are designed to deflect vehicles that enter the median, keeping them from crossing over into oncoming traffic.
They typically go up on narrow medians or those without tree lines, including interstates.
The state has added 209 miles of cable barriers since 2008, which is part of doubled spending on highway safety — $70.7 million. The aim is to put up 350 miles of the safety devices.
Supporters of the effort include Mona and Jimmy Gary, whose eight-year-old daughter, Grace, was killed in 2008 when she and her Baton Rouge family were returning from New Orleans on Palm Sunday. An eastbound truck crossed the Interstate 10 median without braking and slammed into the Garys’ Honda Odyssey. The parents have since appeared before legislative committees to support cable barriers, which Jimmy Gray has said helps to continue Grace’s legacy.
Wilson, a 12-year veteran at DOTD, said the agency initially started installing the barriers where accidents occurred. He said two or three years ago commitments were made to add them across the state, including interstates.
“That may have contributed to the downward trend,” Wilson said of cable barriers.
Centerline rumble strips are about a quarter of an inch wide, and trigger jarring sounds when motorists start drifting. “As you start to swerve, you hear this sound and you begin to focus a little bit more on what is in front of you and what you have to do,” he said.
About 2,100 miles of rumble strips have been installed in recent years.
“We have done that on the interstate, we have done that on two-lane roads where we have two-car collisions,” Wilson said.
Even with the gains, road deaths remain a national problem.
Fatalities totaled nearly 33,000 nationally in 2014, a grim list that has been compared to a 747 airliner full of passengers crashing every day for a year.
LeBlanc said officials have long known that most fatalities occur at night, on weekends and near holidays.
“We were not getting enough enforcement on seat belts during that period,” he said.
Law enforcement authorities were then encouraged to increase checks during those times.
“And I believe that has had an effect on driving it down,” LeBlanc said of traffic fatalities.
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