Unsafe driving persists, study finds


WASHINGTON --Cars are becoming safer, but the people who drive them are not, a study by an insurance industry research group has found.

Without design changes that have made vehicles safer, including the growing prevalence of air bags, the death toll on U.S. roads would be higher by about 5,000 people annually, more than 11 percent of last year's total, according to the study.

The reason, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is that drunken-driving rates have not changed much in the 10 years studied, seat belt use has climbed only slowly and people are driving faster.

"We have lost focus on the human behavior side," said Adrian Lund, an author of the study, which examined the period from 1994 to 2004.

The death rate per million miles traveled has fallen almost every year since 1966, although it was up slightly in 2005, according to a preliminary estimate by the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It would have risen in the 10 years ended 2004 if not for the improvements in vehicles, the insurance institute's study found.

"Every year we look at the fatality rate, and it is coming down, and people are becoming complacent; people think we're doing everything right," Lund said. "Our results show in recent years it's only because we're doing such a good job of getting people into safer vehicles."

The insurance group favors renewed pressure on drivers to buckle up, drive sober and stop speeding.

"Vehicle design changes are good," Lund said, "but people shouldn't have to buy new, more crashworthy vehicles to maintain their safety."

Responding to the implicit criticism that federal, state and local governments were not doing enough to improve safety, Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency, said, "There's no question that safety improvements, either those mandated by the government or installed by manufacturers voluntarily, have contributed to a pretty steady decline in the fatality rate." But he added, "The increase in belt use has also had a significant impact on fatality reductions."

Belt use among front-seat occupants increased to about 80 percent in 2004 from about 58 percent in 1994 and is about 82 percent now, according to the traffic safety agency. The agency says each increase of 1 percentage point in belt use saves about 270 lives a year; highway deaths last year were about 43,200.

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