Statistics show caution behind wheel necessary

Posted: Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The story seems quite positive. ''Seat belts credited with drop in deaths,'' reads the headline. The story, from The New York Times, reports on the release of U.S. Department of Transportation statistics that show fewer people died in motor-vehicle accidents in 2003 than in the preceding year. A decline hadn't been seen for six years.

Good news, though still tempered by the fact that 42,643 people died in motor-vehicle accidents last year.

What the story didn't mention and national stories often neglect state-by-state variances is that Alaska's rate was quite the opposite of the national rate. Alaska actually saw an increase in the number of traffic fatalities, to 95 victims from 89 in 2002.

In raw numbers, Alaska's total is still far below that of most other parts of the nation. Only Vermont, North Dakota, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have numbers similar to Alaska's. Nonetheless, Alaska was one of 21 states to show an increase in fatalities; 27 others had decreases, while two showed no change.

But the DOT report, compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has a few deficiencies.

The report fails to present fatalities as a percentage of a state's population or the number of vehicles, and

doesn't account for year-to-year changes in each. Nor does it mention the number of fatal accidents. Perhaps it's possible that Alaska's roadways have had fewer accidents but that some involve multiple deaths. Last year, for example, two accidents alone on the Seward Highway accounted for six deaths. Those factors may give a better idea of how individual states have been faring.

Those caveats don't take away from the fact that 95 people did die on Alaska roadways last year. And that means that efforts such as law enforcement's ''Click it or Ticket'' seat-belt campaign and the ''Drive Hammered, Get Nailed'' campaign against drunken driving should continue. So, too, should the exercise of caution behind the wheel.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Aug. 12

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