WASHINGTON- Traffic deaths declined and fewer people were killed in alcohol-related crashes on U.S. highways for a second straight year, the government said.
Some 42,636 people died on highways in the United States and Puerto Rico in 2004, a reduction of 248 - or 0.6 percent - from the previous year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
Alcohol-related fatalities dropped 2.4 percent, from 17,105 in 2003 to 16,694 in 2004. Safety groups attributed the decrease to all 50 states moving toward a uniform standard for drunken driving and to high-visibility enforcement such as sobriety checkpoints.
The decline in traffic deaths for the second straight year came as the number of motorists increased. When measured by the estimated miles driven, the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled dropped to 1.46, down from 1.48 in 2003.
"While we were pleased with the overall decrease in the traffic fatality rate, we will never claim 42,636 people dead on our highways as a victory," NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said in Buffalo, New York.
Traffic deaths declined in 27 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The district had the highest percentage decrease, followed by Rhode Island, Minnesota, Montana and Nebraska.
Capt. Patrick Burke, head of traffic enforcement for D.C. police, credited weekly alcohol checkpoints and photo enforcement of speed limits and red lights for bringing down the capital's death total.
Traffic fatalities increased 42 percent in Vermont, the biggest jump in the nation, followed by New Hampshire, New Mexico, Alabama and Oklahoma.
Alabama led the nation with 150 more motorists killed, followed by Indiana with 114.
Fatal crashes continue to have a staggering cost. NHTSA estimated that fatal highway crashes cost society more than $230 billion a year, or about $820 per person.
Safety groups said the data showed mixed results on whether the nation's roads were becoming safer. They noted the increases in motorcycle fatalities, rollover deaths and the number of fatalities involving sport utility vehicles.
Motorcycle fatalities grew nearly 8 percent last year to 4,008, the first time it has topped more than 4,000 deaths since 1987. Motorcycle deaths have increased seven years in a row and safety groups have attributed it to the repeal of helmet laws in several states.
Tom Lindsay, a spokesman for the Ohio-based American Motorcyclist Association, said strong data on what has caused the motorcycle fatalities has not been available. He said the highway bill Congress approved last week included funding for the first major study of motorcycle crash data since the late 1970s.
The government said rollover deaths among passenger vehicle occupants increased 1.1 percent to 10,553. Fatalities in sport utility vehicles, meanwhile, increased 5.6 percent, up to 4,735 while fatalities in passenger cars, pickup trucks and vans declined.
Ron DeFore, a spokesman for the Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America, said the numbers were misleading because SUV vehicle registrations increased 11 percent during the same span. "So actually the risk of dying in an SUV has dramatically declined," he said.
Several groups said they were encouraged by the reduction in alcohol-related deaths, which dropped to under 17,000 for the first time in five years. Fatalities involving those with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher declined 1.8 percent.
The decreases were linked to stronger enforcement programs and a uniform standard of 0.08 blood alcohol level at which a driver is considered drunk. Minnesota was the last state to implement the law on Monday.
Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said increased use of sobriety checkpoints by state law enforcement could help to lower the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths even further. The traffic checkpoints are allowed in 40 states.
Associated Press Writer Carolyn Thompson in Cheektowaga, N.Y., contributed to this report.