Highway deaths fell to 33,808 during 2009 -- the lowest number since 1950, according to updated fatality and injury data. The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even while estimated vehicle miles traveled in 2009 increased by 0.2 percent over 2008 levels.

In addition, 2009 saw the lowest fatality and injury rates ever recorded: 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009, versus 1.26 deaths for 2008.

Fatalities declined in all categories of vehicles including motorcycles, which saw fatalities fall by 850 from 2008, breaking an 11-year cycle of annual increases.

"At the Department of Transportation, we are laser-focused on our top priority: safety," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Today's announcement shows that America's roads are the safest they've ever been. But they must be safer. And we will not rest until they are."

The stats

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study based on 2006 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for those between the ages of three and 34.

In addition to the record-breaking drop in fatalities, the number of people injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 declined for a 10th straight year in a row -- falling an estimated 5.5 percent from 2008, according to NHTSA data.

Alcohol impaired driving fatalities declined by 7.4 percent in 2009 -- 10,839 compared with 11,711 reported in 2008. Overall, 33 states and Puerto Rico experienced a decline in the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2009 from 2008.

The numbers "reflect the tangible benefits of record seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "But we are still losing more than 30,000 lives a year on our highways, and about a third of these involve drunk driving. We will continue to work with our state partners to strictly enforce both seat belt use and anti-drunk driving laws across this nation, every day and every night."

From the data

Highlights of the latest Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and related NHTSA data include the following:

• 33,808 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2009, a 9.7 percent decline from 37,423 deaths reported in 2008, and the lowest number of deaths since 1950 (which had 33,186).

• An estimated 2.217 million people were injured in 2009, a 5.5 percent decline from 2.346 million in 2008.

• 30,797 fatal crashes occurred in 2009, down 9.9 percent from 34,172 in 2008. All crashes (fatal, injury and property damage only) were down by 5.3 percent in 2009 from a year ago.

• Forty-one states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all had reductions in fatalities, led by Florida (with 422 fewer fatalities) and Texas (with 405 fewer fatalities).

Distracted Driving Summit

As part of the effort to reduce traffic fatalities, DOT Secretary LaHood is convening a National Distracted Driving Summit on Sept. 21 in Washington, D.C. The meeting is expected to bring together leading transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement, industry representatives, researchers and victims affected by distraction-related crashes to address challenges and identify opportunities for national anti-distracted driving efforts.

LaHood held a similar summit in the autumn of 2009 prompting a national conversation about texting and talking on cell phones while driving.