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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government Topics:  Rodney E. Slater


May 14, 1998

NHTSA 27-98
Thursday May 14, 1998
Contact: Tim Hurd
Tel. No. (202) 366-9550

U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater today announced that alcohol-related traffic fatalities last year dropped to the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1975, accounting for 39.3 percent of the estimated 42,000 traffic fatalities in 1997. "This reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities is encouraging news and tells us that America is making progress in the battle against drinking and driving," Secretary Slater said. "Safety is President Clinton's highest transportation priority and we must continue to do more, such as establishing a national .08 BAC standard for drunk driving, to reduce the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths."

President Clinton strongly supports tough legislation directed against drunk driving, especially a provision being considered by Congressional conferees for reauthorizing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 that would require states to enact legislation establishing a lower threshold for drunk driving. The Senate version of the bill would establish .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) as the national standard for drunk driving.

The number of crash-related injuries also declined between 1996 and 1997 while the total number of traffic deaths, 42,000, remained steady in the face of increased travel, higher speed limits and changes in the vehicle fleet, according to the preliminary 1997 Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) report by the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Traffic deaths of children four and under dropped by 7 percent, a decline precipitated by the department's efforts to educate parents about safely placing properly restrained children in the back seat.

"These findings would be even better if people followed two simple rules: Wear your seat belt and don't drink and drive," said NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez, M.D.

The FARS report also shows that:

The number of fatalities was essentially unchanged in 1997: 42,000 compared to 42,065 in 1996. The traffic fatality rate remained steady at 1.7 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) even though vehicle miles traveled were up 2 percent from 1996. The 1997 fatality total is 17.8 percent lower than it was in 1980, when traffic fatalities reached their highest level since the FARS program began.

Sixty-three percent of those killed were not wearing seat belts.

Injuries dropped by 61,000, 1.7 percent, compared to 1996.

Alcohol was involved in 16,500 traffic fatalities or 39.3 percent of last year's fatal crashes, down from 40.9 percent in 1996. It was the first time alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped below 40 percent since the FARS program began 23 years ago.

Pedestrian deaths were down 5.4 percent to 5,300, a drop that may be attributed in part to an increase in the number of vehicles with anti-lock brakes.

On a regional basis, states in the northeast and mid-Atlantic areas had the largest increases while southern states registered declines. Six states had double-digit increases in traffic deaths: Delaware, 29 percent; Maine, 12 percent; Montana, 33 percent; North Dakota, 24 percent; Utah, 12 percent; and Virginia, 13 percent. One state, South Dakota, recorded a double-digit decrease; its fatalities dropped by 14 percent.

Long term trends also are noted in the 1997 report. They include:

The proportion of woman-driver fatalities continued to increase, a consistent trend since 1975. Among the reasons: a rising percentage of women drivers and increases in annual miles of travel for women drivers.

Since the 30-year low of 39,235 deaths in 1992, the following fatality trends have been documented: daytime deaths increased by 15 percent; weekday deaths were up 10 percent; and Interstate system fatalities rose 22 percent. Since 1992, the death toll for occupants of light trucks and vans, a category that includes pickups, sport utility vehicles and mini-vans, was up 28 percent.

Motorcyclist fatalities dropped by more than 50 percent, from 4,564 to 2,100, between 1985 and 1997. Compared to occupants of passenger vehicles, the death rate for motorcyclists is still about 15 times greater.

NHTSA annually collects crash statistics from 50 states and the District of Columbia to produce the annual report on traffic fatality trends. The final 1997 report, pending completion of data collection and quality control verification, will be available in June. Summaries of the preliminary report are available from the NHTSA Office of Public and Consumer Affairs at (202) 366-9550 and on the World Wide Web at: www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

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