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Child Deaths in Car Wrecks at Historic Low

But drunken driving, motorcycle fatalities spike, U.S. says

TUESDAY, Sept. 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The number of children killed last year on America's roads hit the lowest level since the government first started gathering such statistics, a new report says. But the good news was tempered by the first rise in alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 11 years.

The Department of Transportation says auto-related deaths among children 4 and under fell by almost 4 percent between 1999 and 2000, from 735 to 706. Fatalities among children ages 5 to 15 declined 4.6 percent, from 2,207 to 2,105, during that period.

Officials attributed the decline to public campaigns stressing the importance of keeping small children in car seats and older kids buckled in the back seat. They also cited aggressive state enforcement of child car safety laws.

The number of deaths of children in car accidents is at its lowest level since the government first started compling those numbers in 1975.

"America's highways are safer than ever for children, and the historic low for last year underscores the effectiveness of our highway safety efforts," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says in a statement. "Unfortunately, we are still losing far too many lives to highway crashes every year, and we need to redouble our efforts."

Indeed, the new report shows that the number of deaths attributable to drunken driving climbed from 15,976 in 1999 -- when they made up 38 percent of fatal wrecks -- to 16,653 in 2000, when 40 percent involved drinking. The government says it's the first increase in alcohol-related deaths since 1990, while Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) calls it the largest year-to-year percentage increase ever.

Drunken driving deaths are "100 percent preventable, and that's the saddest part of all," says Millie Webb, MADD's president. It "is still America's most frequently committed violent crime. If you are on that roadway you must realize that you are a potential victim," Webb adds.

Webb says her group can't explain the increase in fatalities linked to alcohol, except by "complacency" after a 20-year span that saw drunken driving deaths plummet 40 percent.

MADD has been actively campaigning for stricter laws on blood-alcohol content, notably lowering the legal limit to 0.08, as many states have adopted. Were every state to lower the standard to 0.08 -- 20 states still set a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 as legally drunk -- the number of deaths could be reduced by as many as 600 a year, the group says.

The total number of road deaths rose from 41,717 to 41,821 between 1999 and 2000, officials say. Yet accident injuries fell by 1.5 percent, to just under 3.2 million, during that period. The rate of deaths remained at an all-time low of 1.6 per 100 million miles traveled.

In a troubling and persistent trend, however, officials say the number of motorcyclists killed on America's roads jumped by more than 15 percent in 2000, the third straight year of increase. In 2000, 2,862 motorcyclists were killed while riding, compared with 2,483 in 1999. The recent surge, which may be the result in part from growing sales and use of the vehicles, comes on the heels of 17 years of declining fatalities.

"It's certainly a concern," says Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department. "I'm not sure that we fully understand what else may be going on there."

Some areas did see significant gains in safety, officials say. Bicyclist deaths fell by more than 8 percent last year, and the number of pedestrians killed by vehicles dropped 4 percent. Fatalities involving light trucks declined by 3 percent.

Rollover deaths in single-vehicle crashes dropped for every type of car or truck with the exception of sport utility vehicles, which saw an 8.9 percent spike in fatal wrecks, to 1,684, in 2000.

What To Do

It's really quite simple: get in a car, put on a seat belt. About 55 percent of people killed in cars and light truck wrecks last year weren't belted in, officials say.

And don't drink and drive.

To find out more about how to stay safe on the roads, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For more on drunken driving's toll, try MADD. The University of Oklahoma Police Department has an online blood-alcohol content calculator.

SOURCES: Interviews with Millie Webb, president, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Dallas; Rae Tyson, spokesman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.; Mothers Against Drunk Driving; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
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