The data is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests Americans are paying more attention to highway safety and, as a result, are dying less on the highways.
Automakers are building safer vehicles, but experts say people's behavior is the big reason for reduced highway fatalities.
"The most crashworthy vehicle, the most well-designed car in the world is not going to help you in many situations unless you take the personal responsibility to help the vehicle help you," said Jeffrey Runge, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which released the seat belt data Thursday.
Last year, there were 41,800 fatalities, or 1.6 deaths per million miles traveled. There were 47,878 deaths in 1977, and because vehicle miles traveled each year has increased significantly since then, the rate was more than double at 3.3 per million.
The decline has occurred as the federal government has stepped up safety requirements, such as requiring air bags, and consumers have demanded more safety features.
Former NHTSA Administrator Diane Steed said when she was at the agency in the 1980s, automakers believed safety wouldn't sell. Now they actively promote it through ad campaigns.
"We did everything we could when was there to make it clear that you can choose safety options when buying a vehicle," Steed said. "And you could actually see a change in the way companies were advertising."
In 1980, consumers ranked safety ninth among 12 features they considered when buying a vehicle, according to Maritz Marketing Research. Now it's ranked sixth out of 26 features.
NHTSA, insurers and the auto industry spend millions of dollars each year on public service campaigns encouraging motorists to buckle up and to put young children in car seats - away from air bags.
The Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign celebrated its fifth anniversary Thursday by releasing a report that showed the number of small children killed by air bags has fallen sharply since 1996.
Government statistics show the number of confirmed child deaths fell from 25 in 1996 to six in 2000, while the number of automobiles with air bags rose from 22 million to more than 80 million.
While air bag deaths decline, NHTSA says seat belt use continues to climb nationwide, though it varies by region and vehicle type.
The new seat belt usage rate is the highest since NHTSA began keeping statistics seven years ago, when 58 percent wore seat belts.
Drivers and passengers in cars wore seat belts 76 percent of the time, while those in pickup trucks did so only 59 percent of the time.
People in the Northeast are least apt to wear seat belts - 62 percent in the most recent survey - while Southern motorists dramatically increased seat belt use from 69 percent to 76 percent since last fall. NHTSA credited the increase to high-profile enforcement campaigns in the region.
NHTSA uses the statistics to target its safety messages.
"It's easy to see that in spite of our great gains, there is much more that needs to be done," Runge said. "It is not time to quit and rest on our successes."
NHTSA based it seat belt statistics on data gathered by observing about 175,000 drivers and 50,000 passengers at 2,000 sites around the country during seven days in June.
By Nedra Pickler
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