WASHINGTON – Traffic deaths last year reached the highest level since 1990, propelled by an increase in motorcycle and pedestrian fatalities. And the overall fatality rate was up for the first time in 20 years.
Motorcyclists' deaths rose for an eighth straight year, the government said. Nearly half the riders were not wearing helmets.
Some 43,443 people were killed on the highways last year, up 1.4 percent from 42,836 in 2004, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday. It was the highest number in a single year since 1990, when 44,599 people were killed.
The fatality rate grew slightly to 1.47 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, an increase from 1.45 in 2004. That was the first increase since 1986.
Said Acting Transportation Secretary Maria Cino: "Motorcyclists need to wear their helmets, drivers need to buckle up, and all motorists need to stay sober."
Fifty-five percent of the passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts.
Though deaths were up, the number of people injured in crashes declined 3.2 percent, from 2.8 million in 2004 to 2.7 million in 2005.
Traffic-related deaths increased in 26 states and the District of Columbia. North Dakota had a 23 percent increase — from 100 to 123 — and Iowa and Washington state also posted double-digit percentage increases. Florida had the biggest overall increase — 299 deaths, to a total of 3,543 — a 9.2 percent rise over the previous year.
Traffic deaths declined in 23 states — Alaska had a 29 percent drop, to 72 — and deaths in Delaware were unchanged.
The annual report said motorcycle fatalities rose 13 percent — to 4,553 in 2005.
Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, said the increase could not be linked to a single issue, citing the impairment and inattention of other drivers and motorcycle riders who drive impaired, untrained or without protective gear.
"One fatality is one too many, and we urge riders to take vital safety precautions," Buche said. "We also ask that all roadway users expect to see motorcyclists on the road and respect their right to be there."
Several states have moved to repeal mandatory helmet laws in recent years, generating criticism from safety groups who say relaxed laws lead to more deaths and injuries. Motorcycle deaths have increased 115 percent since 1997.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets, while 26 states require younger riders to wear them. Four states — Colorado, Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — have no helmet law.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brought attention to the issue in June when he broke his jaw and nose after colliding with a car on his motorcycle. Roethlisberger was not wearing a helmet.
Pat Hahn, a spokesman for the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center, said his state has seen a significant increase in deaths among riders in their mid-30s to mid-50s, who frequently get back on their bikes after years away to raise their families.
"They don't really get into the attitude, the mind-set, that one little tiny mistake can cause huge problems that wouldn't happen in a car," Hahn said.
NHTSA said it was investigating the increase in pedestrian deaths, which increased from 4,675 in 2004 to 4,881 in 2005.
The government said the number of deaths of young drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 declined by 4.6 percent, to 3,374 last year. Fatal crashes involving young drivers also decreased.
The number of motorists killed in rollover crashes increased 2.1 percent, to 10,816. The number of rollover fatalities in sport utility vehicles dropped 1.8 percent.
Safety groups said more attention should be placed on traffic issues, arguing that a single airplane crash could lead to public outcries while more than 40,000 deaths on the roads fail to generate much response.
"There is a serious problem out there and the countermeasures we are pursuing may be good, but they're not enough," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.