COLUMBIA — About 100 fewer people have died on South Carolina roadways this year than last.

It's the third straight year that the state Highway Patrol has reported a drop in the number of traffic fatalities, Mark Keel, director of the state Department of Public Safety, said Thursday.

The number changes daily but the drop has remained at about 100 for the last several weeks. Today, fatalities are down by 98 lives.

"Here we've got 100 less families that have had to experience the loss of a loved one," Keel said. "We can't put a price on that."

Keel said he attributes the success to targeted enforcement by highway troopers in the areas of speeding, drunken driving and seat belt use.

Also, Keel said the troopers themselves have been a big factor in the downward trend. And that despite the fact that the state has fewer troopers on the roads because of budget cuts.

"I can't overemphasize how hard these guys are working," Keel said. "They have stepped up enforcement and I am just so proud of what they've done."

Three years ago, the state experienced about 1,000 traffic deaths. Keel said he hopes that by the end of 2010 that less than 800 people will have died in traffic collisions.

College of Charleston sociologist Heath Hoffmann said enforcement can play a part, but the decrease in highway deaths is representative of a national trend.

In 1982, nearly 44,000 people died on American roadways. The number dropped to about 34,000 in 2008, he said.

Hoffmann said the trend can be attributed to many different factors including safer cars, a stigma against drunken driving, media campaigns, advancements in medicine and generational seat belt use.

Hoffman is the co-author of a paper that appeared in the British scholarly journal "Mortality" in July on roadside memorials from a sociology and anthropological perspective. Fellow College of Charleston sociologist George Dickinson is the co-author.

South Carolina will join about a dozen other states that offer roadside markers from their transportation departments, including Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. S.C. Department of Transportation will begin accepting applications for $250 memorial signs on Aug. 9.

Hoffmann and Dickinson said they don't expect the state signs will significantly decrease the number of homemade memorials because the memorials are highly individual expressions that are key to the grieving process for some people.

Read more in Friday's editions of The Post and Courier.