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Drop in traffic deaths credited to seat belt use

WASHINGTON -- Fewer people were killed or injured on US highways last year, a decline that regulators said owed much to an increase in seat belt use and a decrease in accidents involving drunk drivers.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said yesterday that 42,643 people died in traffic crashes in 2003, down 362 from the previous year.

The drop is more striking for the fact that people did more driving in 2003. When measured by the estimated miles driven, the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled fell to 1.48, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1966.

Mineta said 2.89 million people were injured, a number down slightly from 2002.

''We're still killing a lot of people," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group that represents state traffic safety officials.

Motorcycle deaths rose for the sixth year in a row, this time by 12 percent to 3,661. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it doesn't yet know if there were more miles ridden on motorcycles in 2003, but it is likely, since motorcycle travel has increased since 1997.

The news was mixed for sport utility vehicles. The safety association said rollover deaths declined for all types of vehicles except SUVs, where they increased by 6.8 percent to 2,639. But Barry McCahill, a spokesman for a the Washington-based Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America, said that number is misleading because it doesn't take into account the increase in SUVs on the road.

Fatalities in crashes with large trucks increased for the first time since 1997. And while deaths remained steady for infants and teens, they increased for children ages 8 to 15.

Traffic deaths fell in 27 states. Connecticut had 294 deaths for a 10 percent decrease, and Vermont had 69 deaths for a 12 percent drop. Rhode Island had 104 deaths for a 24 percent increase. Massachusetts had 462 deaths for a 0.7 percent increase.

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