WASHINGTON — More people died on U.S. roads while driving drunk or in bigger vehicles in 2005 despite record seat belt use, pushing traffic deaths nationwide to a 15-year high, the government reported last Thursday.
Total U.S. traffic deaths in 2005 reached 43,200, according to the preliminary statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The figure for 2004 was 42,636.
"Every year this country experiences a national tragedy that is as preventable as it is devastating," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement.
Passenger car deaths dropped slightly in 2005, while light truck fatalities—which include minivans, sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks—rose by 4.3 percent.
Motorcycle, pedestrian and large truck deaths also went up, the figures showed, while safety belt use nationally was 82 percent.
Overall, alcohol-related fatalities increased 1.7 percent to 16,972, compared to 2004. Total vehicle miles traveled was estimated to have increased slightly to 2.96 trillion, despite higher gasoline prices.
Judie Stone, president of lobbying group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the new data showed states must pass tougher laws to fight drunk driving and to require the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets.
"This is really unacceptable when we know the solutions," Stone said. "We know we can save lives with tough laws and strong regulatory action. This is another sign that we haven't done enough."
Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for people under 35, safety advocates say.
The safety agency, in its preliminary report, did not include data on the causes of fatal crashes. Speeding is usually a prime factor. In recent years, rollovers have accounted for about one-quarter of all deaths but only a fraction of all crashes, federal statistics show.
SUVs, pickup trucks and vans are more prone to roll than passenger cars because of their weight and higher center of gravity.
The government's projections show injuries fell 4 percent last year to 2.6 million while fatal crashes were up nearly 2 percent to nearly 39,000.
The jump in alcohol-related fatalities reversed two years of declines. However, motorcycle deaths rose for the eighth straight year to more than 4,300.
There were 243 million registered vehicles on U.S. roads in 2005, compared to a U.S. population of 295 million.
U.S. traffic fatality estimates released by the government each spring are based on actual data for the first nine months of the previous year, and the final figures are usually issued in late summer.
If the 2005 figures are finalized at the current rate, it would be the highest total since 1990, when 44,599 fatalities were recorded.
The last time highway deaths topped 43,000 was in 2002.