Mineta calls for seat-belt use to stem 'epidemic' of fatalities

| 4/22/2005

A simple prescription could reverse the trend of increasing numbers of fatal highway crashes according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta – buckle up.

Federal estimates show that more people died in highway incidents in 2004 than did in 2003. Fatalities from crashes involving large trucks also increased.

In 2004 an estimated 42,800 people died on the nation’s highways, an increase of 157 compared with the 42,643 people who died in 2003. Of those deaths, 4,986 were involved in crashes with big rigs in 2003. That number increased to 5,169 in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We are in the midst of a national epidemic,” Mineta said in a written statement. “If this many people were to die from any one disease in a single year, Americans would demand a vaccine. The irony is we already have the best vaccine available to reduce the death toll on our highways – safety belts.”

There was a positive spin to some of the preliminary 2004 fatality statistics though.

The percentage of traffic fatalities decreased slightly in 2004 compared with 2003 from 1.48 deaths per every 100 million vehicle miles traveled to 1.46 deaths.

The news for motorcyclists was particularly gloomy, however. The NHTSA report projects the seventh straight increase in motorcycle fatalities. In 2004, 3,927 motorcyclists died, a 7.3 percent increase. In 2003, there were 3,661 motorcycle fatalities, the report said.

Traffic crashes come at an enormous cost to society, Mineta noted in his written statement. NHTSA estimates show that highway crashes cost society $230.6 billion a year, about $820 per person.

“Sadly, traffic crashes continue to be the leading cause of death in American children and young adults,” NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge said in a statement on the agency’s Web site. “While seat-belt use, at 80 percent, is at an all-time high, we could save thousands more lives each year if everyone buckled up.”

The NHTSA report shows the following changes between 2003 and 2004:

  • Injuries dropped from 2.9 million to 2.8 million, a decline of 4.6 percent;
  • Overall alcohol-related fatalities dropped 2.1 percent from 17,013 to 16,654. At positive blood alcohol content levels under 0.08, fatalities dropped 9.8 percent;
  • Passenger car occupant fatalities declined by 2.4 percent and pickup deaths dropped 2.0 percent while sport utility vehicle deaths rose 4.9 percent;
  • In 2004, 56 percent of occupants killed in passenger vehicles were not wearing safety belts, a rate that was unchanged;
  • Pedestrian deaths declined 3.2 percent from 4,749 to 4,598 in 2004;
  • The number of fatal crashes involving young drivers, ages 16 to 20, increased slightly from 7,353 in 2003 to 7,405;
  • In 2004, vehicle miles traveled increased slightly to 2.92 trillion, up from 2.89 trillion in 2003, according to the Federal Highway Administration; and
  • The number of registered vehicles increased from 230.8 million in 2003 to 235.4 million in 2004.