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U.S. Highway Deaths Decline 2.9%, Falling for Fifth Year

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The number of people killed on U.S. highways fell for the fifth consecutive year in 2010, marking the longest streak of declines since records began in 1899.

Fatalities dropped 2.9 percent to 32,885, the lowest since 1949, the Washington-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said today in an e-mailed statement. Deaths of motorcyclists, pedestrians and large-truck occupants increased.

“While we should be encouraged by our successes, we are not going to rest on our laurels, and we are not going to be lulled into complacency,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters today in Washington.

LaHood, who has made distracted driving his signature cause, said safer cars and roadways, along with drivers who are more likely to buckle in and less likely to drink and drive, contributed to the decrease.

The U.S. government has kept data on motor-vehicle deaths since 1899, the year Henry Ford helped found Detroit Automobile Co. Twenty-six people are recorded as having died in crashes that year, according to the Transportation Department. The U.S. has tracked vehicle registrations since 1900, when there were 8,000. In 2009, the most recent year available, there were about 252 million motor vehicles registered, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Better awareness of driving while intoxicated, increased use of designated drivers and better law enforcement contributed to the 4.9 percent decline in alcohol-related driving deaths, LaHood said.

Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt resigned Dec. 6 after being arrested for drunk driving. The FAA is part of the Transportation Department.

Texting While Driving

The agency changed the way U.S. regulators tally distracted-driving crashes. Previously, just having a phone in the car could result in an accident being categorized as affected by distracted driving. With the new method, the accident is so categorized after behavior such as talking on a mobile phone or sending text messages is cited as having contributed to a crash.

Using the new measure, 3,092 deaths, or 9.4 percent, of 2010 road fatalities were related to driver distraction.

The number of people injured in traffic crashes rose 0.9 percent to 2.24 million.

The fatality rate, or the number of people killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, fell to 1.1 last year from 1.15 in 2009.

Truck Deaths Rise

In contrast to the overall decline in traffic deaths, commercial truck-related fatalities, including people in cars struck by big rigs, rose 8.7 percent to 3,675, the agency said. That’s the first increase since 2004. The number of trucker deaths rose 6 percent to 529.

The increase may be related to more truck traffic as the U.S. economy improved, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told reporters.

The report was released as the White House conducts a final review on a $1 billion proposed regulation to decrease the number of permissible daily truck-driving hours to 10 from 11. Trucking-industry groups have argued that the change is unnecessary as fatalities have been declining.

To contact the reporter on this story: Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at

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