January was one of the safest months on Minnesota roads since 1984, when officials began keeping electronic records.

Preliminary numbers from the Department of Public Safety show that nine people died as a result of traffic accidents — about one-third the initial number of deaths reported in January 2014, said DPS spokesman Dave Boxum.

Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol attributes the drop in traffic-related deaths to the efforts of the Toward Zero Deaths program, which was launched in 2003 by DPS, along with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Department of Health, to reduce the number of deaths on state roads. Nielson also attributes the improved numbers to better decision making by Minnesota drivers.

"I'm optimistic that what we're seeing is a nice downward trend in fatalities," Nielson said.

The program has helped to encourage drivers to wear seat belts and increased the safety of state roads, she said. For example, MnDOT implemented roundabouts in areas with more frequent crashes.

Speeding is the cause of one in five traffic-related deaths, according to a news release from the department. Drunken driving also accounts for a fifth of deaths on the road.

The most recent preliminary data show that there were 359 traffic-related deaths in 2014, the lowest number since 1944, when there were 356. The department expects to report about 370 after the numbers are finalized later this year.

Anne Millerbernd is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.