As in most states, Pennsylvania saw more people killed in highway crashes last year but still logged its third-lowest number of traffic deaths on record, according to state transportation officials.
While the actual number of fatalities was 24 more than in 2011 -- for a total of 1,310 -- the overall trend has been decreasing fatalities, according to a report released Monday by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The lowest number of fatalities ever recorded in Pennsylvania was in 2009, when there were 1,256 fatalities, and the second-lowest number of fatalities occurred in 2011.
Transportation officials pointed to new laws they say helped keep more people safe and alive in 2012, including new driving safety requirements for young drivers and a ban on texting while driving, as reasons for the overall decline. But the state should continue making highway driving safer, they said.
"Each life lost on our highways is someone's relative or loved one, and we keep that in the forefront of our minds when we pursue engineering, education and enforcement tactics aimed at keeping our roads safe," said PennDOT Secretary Barry J. Schoch in a statement that accompanied the report.
Since new safety requirements for young drivers -- increasing the amount of training behind the wheel, limiting the number of passengers and designating the failure to wear a seat belt as a primary offense -- took effect in December 2011, fatalities in crashes involving a 16- or 17-year-old fell to 44 in 2012, from 66 in 2011 and from 133 such fatalities 15 years ago, according to transportation officials.
And after a ban on texting while driving took effect in March 2012, state crash data show that the incidence of such crashes decreased to 1,096 from 1,152 in 2011.
Also, fatalities in crashes involving a drinking driver decreased from 391 in 2011 to 377 in 2012, the lowest number in more than a decade, officials said.
Increases were reported, however, in the incidence of fatalities among drivers older than 65 and pedestrian and motorcyclist fatalities, according to state crash data.
Although the overall decline in fatalities suggests that the ban on texting while driving and the new teen driving requirements improved highway safety, Pennsylvania should do more, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association, representing each state's department of transportation.
"It's good news, but it's good news with an asterisk," Mr. Adkins said of the report.
Pennsylvania legislators, he said, should pass a primary seat belt law, which allows police to stop drivers solely for failing to wear a seat belt. Mr. Adkins called that change "the single most effective thing a state can do to save lives on the roads." Current law allows officers to cite a driver for failure to wear a seat belt only if the motorists has been stopped for another offense.
Pennsylvania lawmakers also should ban driving while talking on a cell phone and reinstate the repealed law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, he said.
"It's going to be hard for Pennsylvania to keep some of these gains unless they go back and take a look at some of their laws," Mr. Adkins said.
In Harrisburg, lawmakers are focused almost exclusively on a liquor store privatization bill, pension funding, highway funding and the rigors of passing a state budget, said state Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. But after those hot-button issues are resolved, he said, highway safety legislation is likely to re-emerge on the legislative agenda.
In particular, Mr. Hess said, he would like to pass a ban on driving while talking on a cell phone -- a proposal he acknowledged might not be popular but that he believes would save lives, especially of young people.
"They become so distracted, especially when they get other young people in the car," Mr. Hess said. "That just comes with youth, but the only way you're going to stop it is by banning cell phones while driving."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: email@example.com or 412-263-1719.