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Back to Archives | Back to July 2004 Contents 

From the Director

2003 Traffic Safety Data

By Otis Cox

Deputy Administrator, NHTSA, Washington, D.C.
Deputy Administrator, NHTSA, Washington, D.C.
afety has been and will continue to be the top transportation priority for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and President George W. Bush.

Although the traffic fatality rate has dropped dramatically since the mid-1960s, traffic crashes account for 95 percent of all transportation-related deaths and 99 percent of transportation-related injuries. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for ages 4 to 34. The total economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in the United States exceeds $230 billion annually.

Our preliminary highway fatality numbers for 2003 represent a mix of good news and bad news.

The good news is that the number of traffic injuries dropped again in 2003, down 1.2 percent from the prior year. They declined from about 2.93 million in 2002 to about 2.89 million in 2003. That reduction took place despite increases in all our exposure measures. There were general population increases, increases in the total number of registered vehicles, and increases in the number of vehicle miles traveled.

And more good news is that there was nearly a 4 percent decline in the number of occupant fatalities in passenger cars. This occurred even though there was a 1 percent increase in the number of those vehicles on the road.

Unfortunately, some of the other news is not all that uplifting. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death in the line of duty for law enforcement officers. In 2003, 145 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. Of these, 75 officers died in motor vehicle crashes.

In 2003 the total number of fatalities rose again—to the highest level since 1990. According to our preliminary estimates, a total of 43,220 people died on the nation's roadways, up from 42,815 in 2002. However, the rate of death, per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, remained steady at 1.5.

Why the increase? Our preliminary analysis reveals several reasons. Although passenger car occupant fatalities declined, that improvement was more than offset by fatality increases in two key areas—sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and motorcycles.

Motorcycle rider fatalities rose for the sixth straight year, up 11 percent from 2002. That's an increase of 348 deaths over the prior year. There were 3,592 total motorcycle fatalities in 2003.

It is obvious that the repeal of motorcycle helmet laws in several key states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida, has not helped. Today, just 19 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have universal motorcycle helmet laws.

The other area of increase was among occupants of SUVs, where fatalities rose 11 percent in just one year, up 456 deaths to a new total of 4,451 fatalities. This mirrors a 12 percent increase in registrations of SUVs, demonstrating their continued popularity among American motorists.

Our analysis of these SUV fatalities reveals more. If it were not for SUV rollovers, the death increases would have been far less than would be expected purely from the rise in registrations. In 2003 fully 61 percent of all SUV deaths occurred in rollover crashes. By comparison, just 23 percent of all passenger car occupants died in rollovers.

The other reason for the overall increase in traffic fatalities is elementary. Americans were driving more in the latter half of 2003, a trend that increased their exposure. Nearly all of the fatality increases came in the last half of the year, a time when vehicle miles traveled rose.

Our goal is to cut the fatality rate to not more than one death per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 2008. This is an ambitious goal and it will take a concerted effort across all areas to reach it.

What can we do to reduce these numbers? We at NHTSA are confident that our five priority areas—safety belts, impaired driving, compatibility, rollover, and data collection—still reflect the correct blueprint for action.

In the past year, we have added a dynamic test to supplement our consumer rollover ratings. Soon, we will be announcing proposed new federal standards for roof crush and side impact protection. Improved side protection, a key component of the compatibility issue, could save more lives than any other rule-making NHTSA will undertake during this administration to improve vehicle safety.

Now, let's address the areas where law enforcement executives can have the greatest impact. The national belt use is now at 79 percent, an all-time high. This is in part the result of your enforcement efforts. But we need to continue to focus on those efforts.

Of the more than 32,000 people killed as occupants in vehicle crashes in 2003, 58 percent were unbelted. The real tragedy is that about half of those unbelted people would be alive today if only they had buckled up.

Every 1 percent increase in national safety belt use results in 2.8 million new belt users, more than 270 additional lives saved, and reduced severity of more than 4,000 moderate-to-critical injuries.

In impaired driving, great progress was made through the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, but then the statistics leveled off. Last year, more than 17,400 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes. The median blood alcohol content (BAC) for impaired drivers in fatal crashes is 0.16, twice the legal limit in most states. When last measured in 2002, alcohol-related traffic fatalities occurred at the rate of 0.61 per 100 million VMT. Our goal is to cut that rate to not more than 0.53 alcohol-related traffic fatalities by the end of the year.

NHTSA has undertaken a three-pronged approach to reduce the incidences of impaired driving. First, we need to deploy high visibility enforcement; we know it works. High-visibility enforcement helped propel an increase in safety belt use rates from 75 percent to 79 percent nationally. Research shows that high-visibility enforcement can significantly reduce alcohol-related crashes, too.

To achieve these results, law enforcement needs to be trained, prepared, and ready to detect, arrest, and help prosecute impaired drivers. But these enforcement efforts must be visible and widely publicized so that people will be deterred from driving impaired. Motorists must perceive that if they drive impaired they will be caught. Sobriety checkpoints are clearly the most effective tool to use and should be used wherever allowed. In states that cannot use checkpoints, agencies should employ saturation patrols or other highly visible law enforcement strategies.

NHTSA is encouraging even higher levels of law enforcement participation across the country this year in the Impaired Driving Crackdown from August 27 to September 12. Like last summer, paid advertising in support of the crackdown will remind drivers that if they drink and drive they lose. To achieve general deterrence and convince drivers not to operate their vehicles while impaired, we encourage you to conduct highly visible sobriety checkpoints or saturation patrols during this period. You are also encouraged to conduct impaired driving enforcement efforts throughout the year to continue the general deterrence and, we hope, achieve our ultimate goal of reducing alcohol related deaths and injuries.

Second, we need to expand the number of DWI courts and special prosecutors. The general deterrence model will not work for everyone; so a system must be in place to ensure that offenders will be held accountable. Many prosecutors who handle DWI cases are new and inexperienced and they're often pitted against seasoned, high-priced defense attorneys.

NHTSA will also look to drug courts as a model for DWI cases. Judges in these courts carefully sentence, closely supervise, and have frequent contact with offenders. Research shows that these drug courts can help reduce recidivism of drug offenders, and efforts are being made to apply this same approach to DWI cases.

Third, we need to encourage physicians and other health care providers to perform alcohol screening and brief intervention. Impaired driving is for many a symptom of a deeper alcohol or substance abuse problem, and doctors can help discover these problems by routinely asking patients a few questions, conducting a brief intervention where it is called for, and referring anyone who appears to have an alcohol or substance abuse problem for assessment and treatment. NHTSA is committed to encouraging leaders in the medical and health care community to make screening and brief intervention a routine part of examinations.

We need to address improvements to data. NHTSA cannot emphasize enough how vital the data systems are in helping us reach our common safety goals. Data are crucial to establishing safety priorities, developing interventions, and monitoring progress. The resources provided to states are best used to meet the specific and unique needs of each state based on that state's specific data.

The officer on the street who investigates the crashes and completes the police accident report represents the first element in the process. The impact of the data this officer collects extends far beyond his or her jurisdiction. We are committed to helping states shore up their data systems to ensure that we have timely and accurate safety data.

In the past several years, NHTSA has concentrated significant resources on the two leading factors in motor vehicle crashes and fatalities: occupant protection and impaired driving. But now that we have a handle on these initial priorities, we need to pay more attention to the third leading factor: speeding.

Speeding continues to be cited as a major factor in almost one-third of traffic fatalities nationally. The data also tells us that the most significant problems are on local, collector, and arterial roadways. This is a problem that cannot be ignored.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has a Speed Management Team with members from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA), and NHTSA. This team is currently cosponsoring demonstration projects around the country focusing on setting, enforcing, and adjudicating rational speed limits.

These projects will employ a variety of approaches to the problem of speeding and speed management. A holistic approach that includes engineering, education, and enforcement efforts must be woven into a comprehensive strategy if we are to achieve any success in mitigating the problem of excessive speed. We must now work together to ensure that speeding-related fatalities do not offset the gains we are making in our other priority areas.

No one should be misled into thinking that traffic injury and death are inevitable consequences of living in a motorized society. The deaths on our roads are largely preventable. This administration cannot and will not become complacent with more than 43,000 people killed each year. With safeguarding the lives and property of our citizens being a fundamental duty for all law enforcement, it is clear then that traffic enforcement is law enforcement. We must continue to work together to reduce injuries and fatalities on our roadways.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 7, July 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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