Highway deaths in the United States fell by 1.9 percent last year to the lowest total since 1949, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported Monday.
The number of people killed in crashes in 2011 was 32,367, a decrease of 632 from the prior year. In Pennsylvania, 1,286 people lost their lives in crashes, 38 fewer than in 2010, a 2.9 percent decrease.
While the overall news was good, the agency reported an 8.7 percent increase in deaths among bicyclists, a 3 percent rise in pedestrian deaths and a 2.1 percent increase among motorcycle riders. Motorcycle fatalities have increased in 13 of the past 14 years. Also, distraction-related crash deaths rose by 1.9 percent to 3,331 last year, although the report said better reporting might be a factor in the increase.
"There's a lot of good news in there, but there's a lot of bad news," said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director for the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association.
A "host of factors" is pushing down the fatality total, he said -- including the sluggish economy, seat belt use that is at an all-time high, a reduction in drunken driving and better design of vehicles and roads. Of all those, seat belt use is having the biggest beneficial effect, he said.
"The culture has changed. It's really not acceptable in society to not wear your seat belt anymore," Mr. Adkins said.
The increase in bicycling and pedestrian deaths may stem from more people turning to cycling or walking because of high gasoline prices, he said.
NHTSA said the decline in overall fatalities last year continued a trend that has seen traffic deaths decline by 26 percent since 2005.
"The latest numbers show how the tireless work of our safety agencies and partners, coupled with significant advances in technology and continued public education, can really make a difference on our roadways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement accompanying the report.
"As we look to the future, it will be more important than ever to build on this progress by continuing to tackle head-on issues like seat belt use, drunk driving and driver distraction," he said.
Mr. Adkins warned that preliminary data for 2012 suggests that the trend is nearing its end. A rebounding economy is putting more people on the highways, causing people to take trips they hadn't been making and even putting more teenagers, the most at-risk group, behind the wheel. NHTSA reported in July that traffic deaths for the first quarter of this year were up 13.5 percent compared with the same period in 2011.
"I think we're at the end of the good news, unfortunately," Mr. Adkins said.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868.