Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Tuesday that 42,643 people died in traffic crashes in 2003, down 362 from the previous year.
The drop is more striking for the fact that people did more driving in 2003. When measured by the estimated miles driven, the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled fell to 1.48, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1966.
"America's roads and highways are safer than ever," Mineta said. He added that 2.89 million people were injured, a number that was also down slightly from 2002.
"We're still killing a lot of people," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group that represents state traffic safety officials.
Motorcycle deaths rose for the sixth year in a row, this time by 12 percent to 3,661. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it doesn't yet know if there were more miles ridden on motorcycles in 2003, but it's likely since there has been a steady increase in motorcycle travel since 1997.
The news was mixed for sport utility vehicles. NHTSA said rollover deaths declined for all types of vehicles except SUVs, where they increased by 6.8 percent to 2,639. But Barry McCahill, a spokesman for a the Washington-based Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America, said that number is misleading because it doesn't take into account the increase in the number of SUVs on the road.
McCahill said a more accurate measure is NHTSA's calculation that rollover deaths per 100,000 SUVs declined by 4.6 percent. Rollover deaths per 100,000 cars also decreased, but they increased slightly among van occupants.
"In fairness, that's a pretty good story for SUVs," he said. "They are more likely to roll, but that rate is going down as their numbers are increasing."
Fatalities in crashes with large trucks increased for the first time since 1997. And while deaths remained steady for infants and teens, they increased for children ages 8 to 15.
Traffic deaths fell in 27 states. The highest percentage decreases were in Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont and West Virginia, which saw deaths fall by 10 percent or more. The District of Columbia, Rhode Island and Oregon saw the highest increases.
Harsha said it's not clear why some states did better than others. She said the new data may indicate that states like Oregon, which had been seeing record low numbers of deaths, are hitting a wall with traditional efforts and need to figure out new ways to target chronic drunken drivers, speeders and unbelted occupants.
"We can't keep it up. The expectation that we're going to have a continued decline is probably very unrealistic," said Harsha of the governors association.
NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said the data indicate that the agency's emphasis on seat belts and drunken driving is having some effect. A $25 million seat belt ad campaign and police checkpoints helped increase belt use to an all-time high of 79 percent in 2003. The majority of people who died in crashes - 56 percent - were not wearing seat belts, but that level was lower than the year before.
Drunken driving deaths also fell for the first time since 1999. Runge said it helped that 14 states adopted the tougher blood-alcohol standard of 0.08 last year to avoid losing federal funds.
"We're hoping it's a trend," said Lynne Goughler, vice president of public policy for Mothers Against Drunken Driving. "Every state has gotten down to 0.08, and we know that works."
Another safety advocate, Joan Claybrook of the consumer group Public Citizen, said NHTSA was putting "election-year spin over public health" by emphasizing decreases instead of requiring automakers to produce tougher vehicle roofs, rollover prevention devices and other safety measures.
By Dee-Ann Durbin