Highway death toll could come in low

South Carolina saw 885 people die on its roads in 2009, according to preliminary numbers released Monday by the S.C. Department of Public Safety.

"We're hoping it will stay below 900," DPS director Mark Keel said of the preliminary number. A final number is expected to be released in several weeks.

Not since the mid-1990s has South Carolina had a highway death toll lower than 900.

The preliminary number for 2009 could rise because anyone seriously injured in a December car crash who dies this month will be counted as a 2009 casualty. Also, some police departments haven't filed December traffic death reports with the Department of Public Safety.

"It's good to be worrying about whether the toll will reach 900 when in the past we were worrying about whether the toll would reach 1,000," Keel said.

Various reasons account for the lower death toll, officials said. They include:

- Thousands more drivers were arrested last year for DUI. DUI drivers account for the majority of highway deaths.

- Thousands more tickets for seat belt violations were issued. Failure to wear seat belts is a major cause of road deaths.

- A depressed economy leads people to drive less.

Whatever the final 2009 number is, Keel said, "We'll continue to work hard and drive it down."