U.S. Traffic Deaths Fall to Five Year Low

Traffic deaths in the United States fell to their lowest level in five years in 2006, and a federal agency credited strong law enforcement and vehicle safety features as important factors in the decline.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 42,642 people were killed in highway crashes last year, a drop from the 43,510 in 2005.

"To me, that is 868 families that didn't get the terrible call that a loved one was killed in a motor vehicle accident," said the agency's administrator, Nicole Nason. She released the annual findings at the 33rd International Forum on Traffic Records and Highway Safety Systems in St. Louis.

Her announcement was met with applause from the audience members from around the country, who record traffic data.

Nason said motorcycle deaths increased for the ninth straight year and for the first time exceeded pedestrian fatalities. She cited a large increase in motorcycle deaths involving older riders. She suggested training classes, particularly for those who have never before ridden a motorcycle, or if it has been years since they've been on one.

The government said 4,810 motorcyclists died last year, compared with 4,576 in 2005.

Nason said deaths in alcohol-related crashes remained essentially the same as in 2005.

"We know where to focus our energies," she said.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said his organization was very disappointed about the increased motorcycle fatalities. The data showed "no sign that the trend is going to get anything but worse."

Adkins said states need to implement laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Many states have repealed their laws in recent years; currently 20 states and the District of Columbia require riders to wear protective helmets.

Nason said more analysis needs to be done to better understand the overall decline in traffic deaths, but she said strong efforts to enforce laws and more and better safety features in cars are factors.

"It's still 42,000 deaths. It's a reminder we still have work to do," she said.