WASHINGTON, D.C. --- The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the number of overall traffic fatalities reported in 2008 hit their lowest level since 1961 and that fatalities in the first three months of 2009 continue to decrease. 

The fatality rate, which accounts for variables like fewer miles traveled, also reached the lowest level ever recorded. 

The fatality data for 2008 placed the highway death count at 37,261, a drop of 9.7 percent from 2007. The fatality rate for 2008 was 1.27 persons per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, about 7 percent below the rate of 1.36 recorded for 2007. 

Substantial declines occurred in virtually every major category, led by declines in passenger car occupant fatalities, which dropped for the sixth year in a row and reached the lowest level since DOT began keeping records. Light truck occupant fatalities fell for the third straight year. Alcohol-impaired fatalities also declined by more than 9 percent over 2007. 

Continuing this trend, the January-March 2009 estimate of 7,689 deaths represents a 9 percent decline from a year ago. It was the 12th consecutive quarterly decline. The fatality rate for the first quarter of 2009 reached 1.12 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Preliminary data collected by the Federal Highway Administration showed that vehicle miles traveled during the first three months of 2009 declined by about 11.7 billion miles. 

The 2008 annual statistics did report, however, that motorcycle deaths increased for the 11th straight year and now account for 14 percent of all highway fatalities. 

"While the number of highway deaths in America has decreased, we still have a long way to go," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. He added that the country has made major strides in increasing seat belt use, curtailing impaired driving, making roads and highways safer, and maximizing vehicle safety, all of which play important roles in the declining death rate.