Drinking, motorcycle crashes contribute to highest number of deaths since 1990

Wednesday, April 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Traffic deaths last year were at the highest level since 1990, with more people dying in drunken-driving and motorcycle crashes.

Fifty-nine percent of those killed last year were not wearing seat belts. But, on the positive side, fewer young children died in crashes.

In all, 42,850 people died, 1.7 percent more than the year before, the government said Wednesday. Alcohol-related deaths rose 3 percent to 17,970, the third straight increase after a decade of decline.

``It is painfully clear that recent public and political complacency is taking its toll on precious lives,'' said Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The group wants states to pass stiffer penalties for repeat offenders and approve primary seat belt laws, which allow police officers to stop a car because they suspect the driver is not buckled up. Less stringent laws allow seat belt charges only if a motorist is pulled over for another infraction.

Only 18 states and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

``States have to take it on _ they hold all the cards,'' said Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Motorcycle fatalities rose for the fifth consecutive year, to 3,276, the most since 1990. That compares with a low of 2,116 in 1997.

``Part of what were seeing is a reflection of the increased sales and popularity of motorcycles,'' said Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman.

The number of children under age 4 who were killed fell 5.7 percent, while there was an 8 percent decline for youngsters 4 to 7.

For the first time since the federal agency began keeping records in the 1970s, fewer than 500 children in each age category died in a year. There were 484 fatalities in the youngest age group and 496 for those age 4 to 7.

Many states have passed tougher laws requiring children to be belted or to ride in safety seats.

``There's been a huge explosion of laws to expand the booster seat laws so kids from 4 to 8 are required to be in booster seats,'' said Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. ``If a law passes, people go out and buy booster seats and they use them.''

The government recommends that all children under 13 should ride in the back. Infants under 20 pounds should be in a rear-facing safety seat. Toddlers 20 pounds to 40 pounds should be in a forward-facing child seat. Children weighing more than 40 pounds but not yet 4-foot-9 should be in a booster seat that helps the belt fit correctly across the lap and chest.

``If we are ever going to reduce the needless deaths on the nation's highways, we're going to need the American public to bear a greater responsibility for their personal safety,'' Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.

The government figures, which are preliminary, are based on data collected by police at accident scenes. The final 2002 tally is expected in August. The death total in 1990 was 44,599.