April 20, 2006

US traffic deaths hit 15-year high in 2005: govt

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More people died on U.S. roads while
driving drunk or in bigger vehicles in 2005 despite record seat
belt use, pushing traffic deaths nationwide to a 15-year high,
the government reported on Thursday.

Total U.S. traffic deaths in 2005 reached 43,200, according
to the preliminary statistics released by the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration. The figure for 2004 was 42,636.

"Every year this country experiences a national tragedy
that is as preventable as it is devastating," Transportation
Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement.

Passenger car deaths dropped slightly in 2005, while light
truck fatalities -- which include minivans, sport utility
vehicles and pick-up trucks -- rose by 4.3 percent.

Motorcycle, pedestrian and large truck deaths also went up,
the figures showed, while safety belt use nationally was 82

Overall, alcohol-related fatalities increased 1.7 percent
to 16,972, compared to 2004. Total vehicle miles traveled was
estimated to have increased slightly to 2.96 trillion, despite
higher gasoline prices.

Judie Stone, president of lobbying group Advocates for
Highway and Auto Safety, said the new data showed states must
pass tougher laws to fight drunk driving and to require the use
of seat belts and motorcycle helmets.

"This is really unacceptable when we know the solutions,"
Stone said. "We know we can save lives with tough laws and
strong regulatory action. This is another sign that we haven't
done enough."

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for people
under 35, safety advocates say.

The safety agency, in its preliminary report, did not
include data on the causes of fatal crashes. Speeding is
usually a prime factor. In recent years, rollovers have
accounted for about one-quarter of all deaths but only a
fraction of all crashes, federal statistics show.

SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans are more prone to roll than
passenger cars because of their weight and higher center of

The government's projections show injuries fell 4 percent
last year to 2.6 million while fatal crashes were up nearly 2
percent to nearly 39,000.

The jump in alcohol-related fatalities reversed two years
of declines. However, motorcycle deaths rose for the eighth
straight year to more than 4,300.

There were 243 million registered vehicles on U.S. roads in
2005, compared to a U.S. population of 295 million.

U.S. traffic fatality estimates released by the government
each spring are based on actual data for the first nine months
of the previous year, and the final figures are usually issued
in late summer.

If the 2005 figures are finalized at the current rate, it
would be the highest total since 1990, when 44,599 fatalities
were recorded.

The last time highway deaths topped 43,000 was in 2002.