U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta called the problem of highway traffic deaths a "national epidemic" and encouraged Americans to view wearing safety belts as a form of preventive medicine.
Mineta directed attention to his concern for traffic safety as he announced mixed results in the effort to reduce the number of people who die on U.S. highways each year.
While the fatality rate dropped and alcohol-related crashes are down from 2003, 42,800 died on the nation's highways in 2004, up slightly from 42,643 in 2003, according to projected 2004 data compiled by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a preliminary report.
"We are in the midst of a national epidemic," said Mineta. "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."
NHTSA's report projects a fatality rate of 1.46 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a drop from a record low of 1.48 in 2003, Mineta said.
The report also projects the seventh straight increase in motorcycle fatalities. In 2004, 3,927 motorcyclists died, a 7.3% increase. In 2003, there were 3,661 motorcycle fatalities, the report said.
Traffic crashes come at an enormous cost to society, Mineta noted. 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," said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge, M.D. "While seat belt use, at 80%, is at an all-time high, we could save thousands more lives each year if everyone buckled up."
NHTSA also is projecting the following changes between 2003 and 2004:
• Injuries dropped from 2.9 million to 2.8 million, a decline of 4.6%.
• Overall alcohol-related fatalities dropped 2.1% from 17,013 to 16,654. At positive blood alcohol content (BAC) levels under 0.08%, fatalities dropped 9.8%.
• Passenger car occupant fatalities declined by 2.4% and pickup deaths dropped 2.0% while sport utility vehicle (SUV) deaths rose 4.9%.
• In 2004, 56% of occupants killed in passenger vehicles were not wearing safety belts, a rate that was unchanged.
• Pedestrian deaths declined 3.2% from 4,749 to 4,598 in 2004.
• Fatalities from large truck crashes increased slightly from 4,986 to 5,169 in 2004.
• The number of fatal crashes involving young drivers (16-20) 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 DOT’s Federal Highway Administration.
• The number of registered vehicles increased from 230.8 million in 2003 to 235.4 million in 2004.
NHTSA annually collects crash statistics from 50 states and the District of Columbia to produce the annual report on traffic fatality trends. The final 2004 report, pending completion of data collection and quality control verification, will be available in August. Summaries of the preliminary report are available on the NHTSA web site at: