MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We've been talking a lot lately about highway safety, with Toyota continuing to wrestle with sudden acceleration problems in its vehicles. Today though, some reassuring news: The number of people killed in highway crashes last year was the lowest since 1954, that's according to figures released by the Department of Transportation. And factoring in the number of miles traveled it was the lowest fatality rate ever.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Just under 34,000 people were killed in crashes on the nation's highways last year. That is a big number. But it is also the smallest number in several generations. There were 1.16 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, which is the way the government calculates the fatality rate, and that's the smallest number ever for that statistic.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called it exciting news but added there are still far too many people dying in traffic accidents. The new administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, told lawmakers today he isn't satisfied with those numbers either. Here's David Strickland.
Mr. DAVID STRICKLAND (Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration): We have a tremendous amount of death on today's highways and I'm very happy to report some very good news. But 33,000 people is a tremendous amount of people to die and one person is too many.
NAYLOR: NHTSA attributes the decline in highway deaths to safety campaigns, like the one to get more drivers and passengers to use their seatbelts - click it or ticket - and stricter enforcement of state laws to prevent drunk and distracted driving. Cars have gotten safer too. The government notes the number of miles traveled last year was up a bit. Still Anne McCartt, the senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the recession is also a big factor in the decline in deaths.
Ms. ANNE MCCARTT (Senior Vice President, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): Even though total travel - total miles traveled has begun to increase again, it's possible that some of the most dangerous kind of driving really hasn't picked up.
NAYLOR: By dangerous driving she means fewer vacation trips and trips to the mall.
Ms. MCCARTT: It's hard to say looking at the numbers at this point, whether what we're seeing is safer vehicles, safer people, or still, you know, an effect of the economy.
NAYLOR: The numbers released today are preliminary. This summer the government will have a better look at highway deaths and driving. NHTSA Administrator Strickland appeared on Capitol Hill today to talk about his agency's response to the auto safety issue that's been dominating the headlines: Toyota's recalls of more than eight million vehicles worldwide because of unintended acceleration. He told lawmakers the agency will look into requiring automakers to install break override systems on all of their vehicles, and data recorders. He said the agency has opened eight separate investigations into Toyota's sudden acceleration problems.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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