2003 Highway Fatalities Still At Record Levels

Tuesday, August 10, 2004 202-408-1711 x15


Washington, DC: Final fatality figures for 2003 reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today indicate a marginal decrease in overall fatalities over 2002. NHTSA reported that there were 42,643 traffic deaths in 2003, 577 fewer deaths than the agency had announced for 2003 in its early assessment last April. At the same time, NHTSA revised its fatality figures for 2002, increasing that total from 42,815 up to 43,005. The previously announced figures for both years indicated that traffic deaths were still on the rise.

Even according to the revised figures there were mixed results in the 2003 figures, with deaths in sport utility vehicles (SUVs) rising dramatically, traffic deaths in motorcycle crashes increasing for the 6th year in a row, and fatalities in crashes involving large trucks on the upswing.

"Today's news may mean that there was a slight downturn in overall traffic deaths in 2003, but Americans are still being killed in record numbers on our highways and the fact that nearly 43,000 died last year should send an urgent call to action for Congress to enact the highway and auto safety provisions in S.1072, passed by the U.S. Senate in February," said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates For Highway And Auto safety. "In this crucial legislation, Congress has in its hands the vaccines, the safety solutions, to prevent and treat a deadly and serious epidemic. What is needed now is leadership and political will to pass the legislation that will advance this safety agenda."

S.1072, the Senate version of the multi-year highway funding reauthorization legislation, requires NHTSA to move forward with reasonable deadlines on safety standards to address vehicle rollover prevention, crash ejection avoidance, side impact protection, roof crush strength, seat belt performance, and the crash compatibility of vehicles of mismatched size. Other provisions of S.1072 direct the federal highway and auto safety agencies to improve the safety of 15-passenger vans frequently used to transport children, church groups and sports teams as well as identify ways to address restricted rear visibility, particularly from inside SUVs, that can often lead to deadly backover incidents involving children, seniors and disabled persons. The Senate bill also contains provisions that encourage states to adopt booster seat laws and keep a lid on the growth of bigger more dangerous trucks on our streets and highways.

Congress is expected to resume deliberations on S.1072 in September when they return after Labor Day and continue the highway reauthorization conference committee negotiations. The House-passed version of the safety bill does not contain the key safety provisions supported by Advocates.

Stone added, "The data in this report does not mean that the trends of increasing deaths over the last decade or more has been reversed. It does send a signal of hope that the safety improvements enacted by Congress and adopted by government in recent years may be helping. Now we need to step up our efforts to ensure that the deadly trend of increased highway deaths every year will be permanently reversed. Congress has a golden opportunity to act and potentially save hundreds of lives by improving vehicle safety standards."

The FARS report also shows a dramatic 12 percent jump in motorcycle deaths in 2003 against a backdrop of efforts by state legislators to repeal all-rider motorcycle helmet laws. According to the FARS report, motorcycle deaths have increased six years in a row. Safety groups beat back attempts this year to repeal or severely weaken all-rider motorcycle helmet laws in several state legislatures, including California, Maryland, Tennessee, and Michigan. Louisiana, which had seen a 100 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities since repealing its all-rider helmet law in 1999, re-instated its helmet law in June. Every state that has repealed its all-rider motorcycle helmet law has experienced an increase in deaths and injuries.

Rollover deaths continued at high levels due to the ever-increasing proportion of light trucks in the passenger vehicle fleet. Overall, rollover deaths in SUVs jumped nearly 7 percent, from 2,471 in 2002 to 2,639 in 2003. The majority of people killed in SUVs, 6 of every 10, die in rollover crashes.

Additionally, fatalities due to large truck crashes increased from 4,939 (revised) in 2002 to 4,986 in 2003.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children and young adults in the United States, killing the equivalent of four major airline crashes every week, year in and year out.
"If the aviation industry experienced more than 800 deaths a week in airline crashes a national emergency would be declared and the U.S. DOT and Congress would be scrambling frantically to address the public health crisis," said Stone. "The 2003 highway death toll is unacceptable by any measure. Administration excuses about more vehicles on the road or more miles driven is not an adequate response. The bottom line is that we are making little progress in the face of record highway deaths. The American public deserves leadership and action. S. 1072 contains reasonable, ready-made measures to counter the tens of thousands of preventable fatalities occurring every year on our nation's roads."


Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), an alliance of consumer, health and safety groups and insurance companies and agents working together to make America's roads safer, is actively involved at the federal and state levels to reduce the terrible tragedy of crashes to families across the nation. More information about the unfinished highway and auto safety agenda and the safety provisions in S.1072 can be found on Advocates' web site, www.saferoads.org.

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