Government - Road deaths up slightly last year

Thursday, April 29, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Deaths from crashes of motorcycles and sport utility vehicles rose last year, leading to a slight increase in the overall highway fatality count. Preliminary figures show 43,220 people died in auto accidents in 2003 -- the highest number since 1990 when 44,529 died and up slightly from the 42,815 deaths in 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday. People drove more total miles last year, so the rate of deaths per miles traveled was about the same. Fifty-eight percent of those killed weren't wearing seat belts.

Runge said Congress should approve one-time bonuses for states that pass primary seat belt laws that allow police to stop motorists for failing to buckle up. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have such laws.

Motorcycle deaths increased 11 percent to a total of 3,592, NHTSA said. It was the sixth straight year in which motorcycle deaths have increased, a trend Runge blamed on the widespread repeal of helmet laws since 1995, when Congress stopped penalizing states for not having them.

Passenger car fatalities declined 3.8 percent, but SUV fatalities increased 11 percent for a total of 4,451. Runge said that was partly due to a 12 percent increase in SUV sales, but he said SUV rollover also was a significant problem.

There would have been a 4 percent increase in deaths if no SUVs had rolled over, Runge said.

Ron DeFore, a spokesman for the Washington-based Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America, said Wednesday that NHTSA is unfairly focusing on the small percentage of rollover crashes.

"There's a misperception among many that SUVs are dangerous killer vehicles," DeFore said. "In all other crashes, they are much safer."

Runge said NHTSA will combat rollover deaths with new requirements for roof strength that will come out this year. He also said NHTSA expects to save as many as 1,000 lives each year with a new standard for vehicle performance in side-impact crashes. That standard will be released next month, Runge said.

Forty percent of crash deaths -- or 17,401 -- were alcohol-related, NHTSA said. That was about the same as 2002, when 17,419 people died in alcohol-related crashes.

Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said police need to combat those numbers with more frequent highway checkpoints and tougher sanctions for drivers who have high blood-alcohol levels.

There were some bright spots in the latest government statistics. Injuries declined by around 35,000, which NHTSA attributed to an increase in seat belt use and safer vehicles. Fatal crashes involving drivers ages 16 to 20 also fell 3.7 percent to 7,452.

In response, several safety groups on Wednesday urged quick passage of a Senate highway bill that would set deadlines for NHTSA to upgrade some safety standards. A House version of the bill doesn't include those provisions.

"If we had 800 people killed every week in airplanes, everyone would be falling all over themselves coming up with a safety plan." said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of the watchdog group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The NHTSA plans to release final 2003 fatality figures in August. The agency collects its data from police reports in all 50 states.

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