Traffic fatalities rise across nation, decline in state

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   While the number of persons killed in motor vehicle accidents in Tennessee in 2002 dropped from the previous year, the nation as a whole saw an increase in traffic fatalities according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which was released in July.
   According to the NHTSA report, 1,251 people were killed in the state of Tennessee in motor vehicle accidents in 2001. In 2002, that number dropped to 1,175, showing a 6.1 percent decrease.
   In 2001, 42,196 people across the nation lost their lives in a traffic accident. In 2002, that number rose to 42,815, which is a 1.5 percent increase. However, according to the NHTSA report, the number of people injured in motor vehicle crashes decreased from 3,033,000 in 2001 to 2,926,000 in 2002. According to a released statement from the NHTSA, the number of fatalities has reached the highest level since 1990 while crash-related injuries hit an all-time low across the country.
   "It is time to acknowledge that history is calling us to another important task. It is the battle to stop the deaths and injuries on our roads and highways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a released statement about the NHTSA report. "The Bush administration is committed to improving safety on our highways -- safety is our highest transportation priority.
   "We have proposed a comprehensive series of initiatives to help make highways safer, and I personally urge states to pass tough laws prohibiting drunk driving and requiring the use of safety belts. Once and for all we must resolve the national epidemic on our highways."
   Some of that increase may be attributed to population growth, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, which works with the NHTSA to evaluate motor vehicle accident statistics. According to the NHTSA report, the population in the United States increased 1.1 percent from 2001 to 2002.
   Another source for the increase in traffic fatalities comes from an increase in the amount of traveling done on the roadways. According to estimates by the Federal Highway Administration, Americans traveled approximately 2.83 trillion miles in 2002, which was up from the 2.78 trillion miles traveled the year before.
   The NHTSA estimates that highway crashes cost society approximately $230.6 billion a year -- about $820 per person.
   The amount of traffic fatalities which were alcohol-related remained "effectively unchanged" according to the NHTSA report, showing a 0.1 percent increase. In 2001, 17,400 people across the nation died in alcohol-related crashes and that number rose to 17,419 in 2002.
   According to the report, the number of deaths in alcohol-related crashes where the driver was at an "impaired" level -- with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of between 0.01 and 0.07 -- dropped by 5.5 percent from 2,542 in 2001 to 2,401 in 2002. However, the number of individuals who died in accidents where the driver was at an "intoxicated" level -- with a BAC of 0.08 or higher -- increased 1.1 percent from 14,858 in 2001 to 15,019 in 2002.
   "The final traffic fatality research released (in July) by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration brings good and bad news. The good news is that last year alcohol-related traffic deaths were lower than previously estimated. The bad news, however, is that 17,419 people died in preventable tragedies accounting for 41 percent of total traffic fatalities," Wendy J. Hamilton, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said in a released statement. "This makes three years in a row that alcohol-related traffic fatalities have increased -- a sad chapter in U.S. history."
   The increase in the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities is a call to action, according to Hamilton. "We cannot overlook an epidemic of alcohol-related deaths, equivalent to two 757 passenger jets crashing each week for an entire year," she said. "Today alone, an estimated 48 people in the U.S. will senselessly die -- and not because of terrorists attacks or terminal illness; the culprit is alcohol-impaired driving."