WASHINGTON -- Light-truck critics found fresh ammunition in new highway fatality statistics from the federal government, but the numbers tell a more complex story.
At the heart of the debate: Gains in traffic safety are getting tougher to accomplish.
The federal government says that total deaths on the roads were higher in 2002 than in 2001 and that much of the increase was attributable to pickup and SUV rollovers.
But 2 percent more vehicles were in service last year, and Americans traveled 48 billion miles farther in 2002 than 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So, statistically, highways were not more deadly. The death rate was unchanged, at 1.51 per 100 million miles traveled, NHTSA says. The injury rate declined.
But even a stable death rate confirms a sobering reality: Dramatic safety improvements, which brought the death rate down from 5.5 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1966, are history. The rate has been fairly flat, declining from about 1.9 to 1.5, since 1991, despite the proliferation of airbags and other safety efforts by government, industry and advocacy groups.
"The low-hanging fruit was harvested in the early years," says Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing 10 automakers with more than 90 percent of the U.S. market.