TALLAHASSEE, FL --- The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported this month that traffic crash fatalities in the state fell to an 18-year low during 2009. 

The preliminary data released indicate the state had 2,570 traffic-crash fatalities last year. That's a nearly 14-percent decline from 2008, when Florida had 2,986 such deaths. 

"Floridians should be encouraged by this downward trend in fatalities," said DHSMV Executive Director Julie L. Jones. "We are committed to providing the safest possible driving environment by educating drivers, licensing those who prove they are competent and qualified, and enforcing the traffic laws." 

Last year's fatality numbers are comparable to the total traffic-crash related deaths for 1992, when Florida had a far smaller population, officials said. 

Florida Highway Patrol officials continue to emphasize that drivers and passengers should use seat belts. Wearing seat belts is required in Florida. And during 2009, failure to wear seat belts became a primary offense in the state, meaning that police can stop and ticket drivers who they spot not wearing the safety belts. 

"One of the easiest ways for motorists to stay safe on the road is to buckle up," said FHP Director Colonel John Czernis. "We encourage motorists to take precautions, such as fastening their safety belts and ensuring their vehicles are properly maintained." 

FHP's Sgt. Kim Montes said troopers cannot say "specifically why the numbers are down." However, she said the state's strengthened traffic laws and law enforcement's commitment to enforce those laws are playing parts in the decline. 

Late last month, FHP officials released numbers showing that Florida police are ticketing more than 1,000 motorists a day on average for seat belt violations. Authorities wrote more than 190,000 seat belt tickets after the tougher seat belt law kicked in on June 30, requiring drivers to buckle up. 

The "primary" seat belt law permits officers to pull drivers over if they or their front seat passengers are not buckled up. Anyone under 18 must wear seat belts regardless of where they sit in the vehicle. 

FHP officials estimate the new law will save about 125 lives a year and prevent more than 1,700 serious injuries.