Nation's highway fatalities up slightly

SUV, motorcycle crashes fuel increase in deaths, preliminary findings show

April 29, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Rollover crashes involving sport utility vehicles claimed an increasing number of lives last year, while fatalities in passenger cars went down, the government reported yesterday.

There was an 11 percent increase in SUV crash deaths and a 3.8 percent decrease in passenger car fatalities.

Overall, 43,220 people were killed on the nation's highways in 2003, an increase of 405 deaths from the previous year, according to preliminary figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That represented the highest number of deaths since 1990.

"That's a line I never wanted to cross - 43,000," said Jeffrey W. Runge, a former emergency room doctor who heads the highway safety agency. "We were hoping for the first decline [in deaths] in many years."

Among passenger car occupants, 778 fewer people were killed in 2003. But among people in SUVs, there were 456 additional deaths, with rollovers accounting for more than half that increase.

Auto industry officials said the rise in SUV fatalities correlates with the increasing popularity of the vehicles, but safety groups said the numbers bolster the case for stricter government regulation. A bill pending in the Senate would set deadlines for the NHTSA to require a series of safety improvements, including a stability standard for passenger vehicles. The Senate bill is part of a highway construction measure pending in Congress; the House version does not include such requirements.

"What this shows is that SUVs continue to dominate the fatality debate," said Joan Claybrook, president of the Public Citizen advocacy group.

SUVs ride higher, making them more prone to tip in emergency maneuvers than ordinary cars. The NHTSA, on its own, plans to move forward later this year with new requirements for side impact protection and roof strength. Those new standards should help people in passenger cars that are broadsided by SUVs, as well as occupants of SUVs and pickups in rollovers.

Motor vehicle crashes are the eighth-leading cause of death for Americans. They are the top cause of death for ages 4 to 33, according to a recent NHTSA analysis.

Motorcycle fatalities increased last year by 11 percent, to 3,592, as more states abandoned mandatory helmet laws. Nearly half of the motorcyclists killed were 40 or older, reflecting the continuing popularity of motorcycles among aging baby boomers.

And the number of people killed in crashes involving large trucks edged up, despite a continuing campaign to promote truck safety and to educate other motorists about the dangers of driving near trucks.

The number of highway deaths had declined from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, even with more cars and drivers on the roads. Those improvements have been attributed to the introduction of air bags, better vehicle engineering and stronger laws to promote seat belt use and deter drunken driving.

But the trend has been worsening since the late 1990s, and many safety experts believe it will continue to do so unless side air bags, stability-control systems and other innovations are widely adopted. They also urge stronger enforcement of mandatory seat belt laws.

Not all the statistics for 2003 were bleak.

The number of injuries in crashes declined by 1 percent. Pedestrian deaths fell by nearly 3 percent, and the number of fatal crashes involving teen drivers dropped by nearly 4 percent. Alcohol-related fatalities went down slightly. And when measured against the number of miles driven, the overall highway fatality rate remained unchanged.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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