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DOT Announces Historic Low Highway Fatality Rate in 2003

The fatality rate on the nation's highways in 2003 was the lowest since record keeping began 29 years ago, the U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced today. The number of crash-related injuries also dropped to a historic low in 2003.

"... The decreasing number of traffic fatalities and record low death rate on our roads shows that we are headed down the right road - one that leads to a safer America," said Secretary Mineta.

Secretary Mineta pointed to efforts by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that contributed to the reduction in the fatal accident rate, including campaigns to encourage safety belt use and discourage impaired driving, work with state legislatures to pass tougher safety belt and drunk driving laws, and rulemaking efforts to improve vehicle safety standards.

A total of 42,643 people died, and 2.89 million were injured in 2003. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) was 1.48 in 2003, down from 1.51 in 2002. It was the first time the rate has dropped below 1.5. In 2002, 43,005 were killed and 2.93 million were injured.

NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge, M.D. said, "... much of the credit goes to the committed professionals in the states and communities who implement the programs, and to safety professionals in the automotive industry who offer safer vehicles."

Alcohol-related fatalities also dropped significantly in 2003, the first such decline since 1999, as more states adopted laws that allowed them to prosecute drivers at .08 blood alcohol content (BAC) and above. 2004 marks the first year that all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico were able to prosecute drivers at .08 BAC.

In 2003, VMT increased to 2.88 trillion, up from 2.86 trillion in 2002, according to the DOT's Federal Highway Administration.

NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) also shows that between 2002 and 2003:

  • Motorcyclist fatalities increased from 3,270 to 3,661, a 12 percent rise.

  • Rollover deaths among passenger vehicle occupants declined 3.3 percent from 10,729 to 10,376. Sport utility vehicle (SUV) rollover fatalities increased 6.8 percent from 2,471 to 2,639, even as SUV registrations increased 11 percent. Rollovers declined in passenger cars (7.5 percent; 4,794 to 4,433) and pickup trucks (6.8 percent; 2,755 to 2,569).

  • Twenty-seven states had decreases in the total number of fatalities. The highest percentage decreases were in;

    • Colorado (-15 percent);

    • Vermont (-12 percent);

    • Connecticut (-10 percent);

    • Ohio (-10 percent);

    • Oklahoma (-10 percent);

    • West Virginia (-10 percent).

  • The highest percentage increases were in the;

    • District of Columbia (+43 percent);

    • Rhode Island (+24 percent);

    • Oregon (+17 percent).

  • Passenger vehicle occupant fatalities dropped to 31,904 - the largest decrease since 1992. Declining fatalities in passenger cars are consistent with increases in safety belt use and more crashworthy vehicles.

  • Passenger vehicle fatality rates per 100,000 registered vehicles declined for all passenger vehicle types except vans.

  • Pedestrian deaths declined 2.1 percent from 4,851 in 2002 to 4,749.

  • Fatalities in large truck crashes increased slightly from 4,939 to 4,986.

  • In 2003, there was a decline in the number of unbelted fatalities, reflecting an increase in safety belt use. Still, 56 percent of those killed in passenger vehicles were not wearing safety belts. This underscores the need for states to adopt primary safety belt laws.

NHTSA earlier estimated that highway crashes cost society $230.6 billion a year, about $820 per person.

NHTSA annually collects crash statistics from 50 states and the District of Columbia to produce the annual report on traffic fatality trends. Summaries of the 2003 report are available on the NHTSA web site at: