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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Greater seat belt use and a drop in alcohol-related fatalities brought the number of U.S. highway deaths down in 2003 to 42,643, reversing four years of increases that had alarmed safety officials, regulators said on Tuesday.

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the number of deaths was still way too high, the agency heavily promoted the nearly 1 percent reduction over the 2002 fatality count of 43,005, a 13-year high. Injuries dropped to 2.89 million last year from 2.93 million.

"We are headed down the right road," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in announcing the 2003 figure that also included a small -- but heavily touted -- drop in the death rate per vehicle miles traveled, which is a primary indicator of overall highway safety.

"We were bound and determined to reverse the trend and we have done so," said Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the highway safety agency.

But safety and consumer groups challenged the cautiously optimistic tone of transportation officials on the final 2003 highway toll, which was unexpectedly reduced by 577 from preliminary estimates this spring. Safety experts could not remember such a dramatic revision.

The final 2002 figure was also revised up by 190.

Interest groups also blunted the bright government reaction to the incremental dip in the fatality rate to a record low 1.48 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

One organization, consumer group Public Citizen, speculated the revised fatality figures for 2002 and 2003 and the fanfare with which the results were presented to the public smacked of election-year politics.


Another leading consumer voice urged the Bush administration to support a string of auto safety proposals in the long-stalled highway bill, initiatives Runge said the Transportation Department still opposes.

"Today's news may mean that there was a slight downturn in overall traffic deaths in 2003, but Americans are still being killed in record numbers on our highways," said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Nevertheless, Mineta and Runge were adamant that progress was made in 2003, especially on efforts to combat drunk driving and increase safety-belt use.

Alcohol-related fatalities declined by 2.9 percent to 17,013, the lowest since 1999.

"We credit much of this success to increased law enforcement and passage of key anti-drunk driving laws across the country," said Lynne Goughler, vice president of advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Runge also reported that unbelted deaths fell by 3 percent, which closely reflects a 4 percent increase in seat belt use over 2002.

But warning signs on highway safety persist.

With the annual number of vehicle miles traveled rising to 2.88 trillion in 2003, safety experts say the death rate must be lowered sharply to have an impact on overall fatalities.

While the actual number of rollover deaths declined 3.3 percent in 2003, rollover fatalities associated with sport utility vehicles rose 6.8 percent.

Rollovers represent only a small fraction of crashes on U.S. roads but more than a quarter of all traffic deaths. Most rollover deaths occur in single-vehicle accidents.

Regulators also noted that motorcycle fatalities rose 12 percent to 3,661, and deaths involving large truck crashes went up slightly to 4,986.
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George Obradovich
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