National traffic fatality statistics hit 13-year high

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Across the nation in 2003, the estimated number of persons killed in motor vehicle accidents rose to the highest level since 1990, according to a report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
   Last year, approximately 43,220 died in 2003 as a result of motor vehicle accidents, up slightly from 2002 when 42,815 people lost their lives in traffic crashes.
   According to the NHTSA report, the types of vehicles reporting the biggest increases were sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and motorcycles. "Motorcycle fatalities rose by 348 to 3,592, an 11 percent increase," the NHTSA report states. "Passenger car fatalities declined by 778, but SUV fatalities increased by 456, 55 percent of which were rollover crashes. This increase was partially accounted for by increases in SUV sales. Declining fatalities in passenger cars and injuries overall can be attributed to more crashworthy vehicles in the fleet and increases in seat belt use."
   Failure to use seat belts by drivers and passengers contributed to the number of fatalities according to the report, which states that a reported 58 percent of all those killed in passenger cars were not wearing seat belts.
   Also, nearly two-thirds of teenage (aged 16-20) passenger vehicle occupants who were killed in traffic accidents were unrestrained at the time of the crash.
   Alcohol and drug use also were major causes of traffic fatalities. "Forty percent of all fatalities were alcohol-related, essentially unchanged from 2002," the report states. "This underscores the value of the need for states to adopt standard safety belt laws and to increase enforcement of impaired driving laws."
   Motorcycle riders failing to use proper safety equipment also contributed to the number of fatal accidents. According to statistics in the report, approximately 48 percent of the 1,709 motorcyclists killed in accidents last year were not wearing helmets.
   The report highlighted some positives in the levels of some fatal accidents. According to the report, pedestrian deaths declined 2.8 percent, deaths of children seven and under remained near historic low levels, and the number of fatal crashes involving young drivers -- aged 16 to 20 -- declined by 3.7 percent.
   According to the NHTSA, the cost of highway crashes cost society an estimated $230.6 billion a year, or about $820 per person. "Although we are seeing progress in some areas, our nation must take this epidemic seriously," said NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge, M.D., in a statement released by the NHTSA.
   "Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death in American children and young adults, but that can change through personal responsibility and enforcement of laws and regulations. We need the cooperation of every American to drive responsibly, fasten his or her safety belt and care for each other's safety on the roads."