Traffic fatalities rise slightly as motorcycle deaths increase

Thursday, March 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of people killed in traffic accidents increased slightly last year, partly due to yet another jump in fatal motorcycle accidents.

Federal estimates released Thursday show that after many years of decline, motorcycle deaths steadily increased from 1997 to 2000, growing 27 percent in the three-year period.

Last year there were 2,680 motorcycle deaths, according to estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's 208 more than in 1999, enough to offset the 188 additional traffic deaths last year.

The rate of death per miles traveled on the nation's highways increased slightly last year for the first time since 1977. There were 41,800 fatalities, or 1.6 deaths per million miles traveled, compared with 1.5 in 1999 and 3.3 in 1977.

Besides motorcycle fatalities, there were increases in deaths of teen drivers. Alcohol-related fatalities rose from 15,786 to 16,068, but remained at 38 percent of total traffic deaths _ an all-time low.

There were drops in the deaths of children under five, pedestrians, people involved in crashes with large trucks and occupants of vehicles that roll over. However, for occupants of less-stable sport utility vehicles, rollover deaths increased 2.8 percent.

NHTSA uses the statistics to plan public awareness campaigns, set funding priorities and focus its energies on at-risk populations.

``These statistics underscore the challenges facing this country in highway safety,'' Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement. ``Safety is an individual as well as government responsibility, and we must work together to improve it.''

The figures are based on data collected by police at accident scenes nationwide. The preliminary numbers use statistics from the first nine months and then estimate a total for the year. An exact tally will not be ready until July.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said agency officials were waiting for final statistics before drawing too many conclusions, but they were particularly concerned about the motorcycle deaths.

He said there has been a steady rise in the age of riders getting killed and the size of the bikes involved in fatal accidents.

``It may be lack of experience, it may be lack of training, it could be a lot of things,'' he said. ``In some cases, it could be drinking and riding, which is never a good combination. If there is any situation where you need all your faculties, it's riding a motorcycle.''

Steffanie Gunn, a spokeswoman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation that trains riders around the country, said there has been a trend of baby boomers and other adults taking up riding after several years off a bike.

``We are trying to get the word out to the them to get some retraining,'' she said. ``It's not like riding a bicycle.''

Motorcycle deaths reached a low point in 1997 with 2,116, or 21 deaths for every million miles they were driven in America. That was less than a third of the rate from 20 years earlier.

Since 1997, at least four states _ Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana _ have repealed their mandatory helmet laws for adult drivers, according to Allan Williams, chief scientist for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

A Transportation Department study published last summer shows that after the change in Texas and Arkansas, helmet use dropped and injuries and fatalities increased.

``Obviously, it makes a big difference wearing a helmet or not as to whether you are going to survive a crash,'' Williams said.