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COLUMBIA -- Fewer motorists are dying on South Carolina roads.

If the trend holds, the state could have the lowest number of traffic deaths since the 1980s. As of Thursday, 444 people had died in traffic crashes this year, down from 542 people for the same period in 2009.

This is the third-consecutive year with a drop in the number of traffic fatalities, said Mark

Keel, director of the state Department of Public Safety. Experts say the trend is because of enforcement efforts and external factors such as advancements in vehicle safety and medical intervention.

The last time the state had fewer than 800 traffic deaths in a year was in 1982 when 730 people died on the roads.

"We're making dramatic progress," Keel said.

On Thursday, the number of fatalities was down by 98.

That many fewer families have to deal with the loss of a loved one, Keel said. "We can't put a price on that."

The latest figures include a crash Wednesday on Interstate 95 in Colleton County that left a Pennsylvania couple dead and nine others injured.

Keel said he attributes the trend of fewer traffic deaths to targeted enforcement by troopers in the areas of speeding, drunken driving and seat-belt use.

Also, Keel said the troopers themselves have been a factor in the downward trend. The decrease in deaths came despite budget woes that have cut the number of troopers on the roads. The state had 943 full-time troopers in July 2008. Now, the number is 833, Keel said.

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

In 2008, South Carolina was No. 1 in the country for the number of alcohol-related deaths. In response, Keel said, troopers increased the number of drunken-driving arrests by 30 percent from 2008 to 2009 and dropped the state's ranking.

Another area where the state is gaining ground is in seat-belt use, Keel said. Seat belts are used in South Carolina at a higher rate now than ever before. In a June survey, the seat belt usage rate was 85.4 percent, up from 81.5 percent in 2009. The national average is 84 percent.

College of Charleston sociologist Heath Hoffmann said enforcement can play a part but that 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 factors, including safer cars, a stigma against drunken driving, media campaigns, advancements in medicine and seat belt use.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.