WASHINGTON — The highway fatality rate last year reached its lowest point since records were first kept nearly 40 years ago, the government projected on Thursday.
The rate dropped even as the total number of traffic deaths inched up because more drivers were on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
Overall, an estimated 42,800 people died on the nation’s highways in 2004, up from 42,643 in 2003.
In Missouri, there were 1,232 traffic fatalities in 2003, according to the safety administration Web site.
At the same time, people drove more miles, so the fatality rate dropped a bit, from 1.48 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2003 to 1.46 deaths in 2004. That’s the lowest since records were first kept in 1966, the administration’s report said.
Alcohol-related fatalities dropped 2.1 percent last year, to 16,654 in 2004.
Reporting the mixed results, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the nation was “in the midst of a national epidemic” and urged motorists to buckle up.
“If this many people were to die from any one disease in a single year, Americans would demand a vaccine,” Mineta said. “The irony is we already have the best vaccine available to reduce the death toll on our highways — safety belts.”
Fifty-six percent of those killed weren’t wearing seat belts, a rate unchanged from 2003.
NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge noted that seat belt use is at 80 percent, an all-time high, but said “we could save thousands more lives each year if everyone buckled up.”
In 2004, 75.9 percent used seat belts in Missouri, and there was an 11 percent reduction in nonuse from 2003 to 2004, according to NHTSA data.
Deaths of drivers and passengers in sport utility vehicles rose 4.9 percent, though it was not clear how many more SUVs were on the road last year. Rollover fatalities in these popular vehicles increased 6.9 percent, while SUV rollover injuries dropped 3 percent.
The number of deaths dropped 2.4 percent for people in passenger cars and fell 2 percent for pickup trucks. Among large trucks, the number of people killed grew 3.7 percent.
Jacqueline Gillan, vice president for watchdog group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called the results “bad news for the American public.”
“The government wants us to believe, that even though more family members and friends were killed in crashes last year, that things are really getting better because we spent more time driving,” Gillan said. “The cold hard reality is that we are stuck in neutral.”
In 2004, there were more vehicles registered — 235.4 million — and they drove more miles — 2.92 trillion.
Fatal crashes involving drivers between the ages of 16 to 20 increased slightly, from 7,353 in 2003 to 7,405.
The figures predicted the seventh straight increase for motorcycle fatalities. In 2004, 3,927 motorcyclists died, an increase of 7.3 percent over 2003.
In Missouri, motorcycles constituted 5.4 percent of the total 1,663 traffic casualties in 2003, according to the NHTSA Web site.
The data released Thursday are considered projections. NHTSA plans to release final 2004 fatality figures in August. NHTSA collects crash statistics from all 50 states.
Missourian reporter Kate Gilliam contributed to this report.