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Monday, May 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strict seat-belt law saving lives, state says

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The 601 people killed in traffic accidents last year in Washington state was the lowest number of fatalities since 1961, according to the state Department of Transportation (DOT).

And the death rate — the number of fatalities for every 100 million miles driven — was the lowest in state history, the agency said.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission credits a 2-year-old state law allowing police to ticket drivers who don't wear seat belts.

For 2003, the death rate in the state was 1.1 for every 100 million miles driven, said Dick Doane, research analyst with the commission and the keeper of fatality data.

In 1910, when record-keeping began, there were 33 registered vehicles in the state and 21 deaths, which works out to 64 deaths for every 100 million miles driven, according to DOT figures.

Since 1961, when 580 people died in traffic accidents in this state, the number of miles traveled by car has more than quadrupled, from 12 billion in 1961 to 55 billion in 2002.

Last year's 601 traffic fatalities are nearly 10 percent lower than the 658 deaths in 2002 and 42 percent lower than the record number of annual deaths, 1,034, in 1979.

"The primary seat-belt law is the major reason," Doane said of the drop in deaths.

Today, 95 percent of Washington drivers wear seat belts, among the highest in the nation. That's nearly a 15 percent increase from two years ago.

The primary seat-belt law, which allows police to pull over and ticket drivers who aren't wearing seat belts, took effect in June 2002. Before then, driving without wearing a seat belt was a secondary offense: Drivers could be ticketed only after they'd been stopped for something else.

"It's incredible when you see the protection of just wearing a seat belt," said Rob Kaufman, with Harborview Medical Center's injury-prevention and research center. "It's the No. 1 protective technology in your car — a simple seat belt."

The state DOT also reported that teenagers represent only 7 percent of all drivers but 20 percent of all traffic fatalities.

"Teens are four times more likely to die in a collision than any other age group, and these numbers continue to go up in spite of the fact that deaths and injuries for all other driver groups have dropped in the last decade," DOT said in its quarterly highway-safety update.

While Washington is the 15th-most-populous state in the nation, in 2002 it ranked ninth in the rate of fatalities per capita in the U.S.

Doane said what's striking is that pedestrian and motorcycle deaths increased in 2003, while vehicle deaths dropped substantially. That, he said, was because of the seat-belt law.

Other changes in laws also have helped to reduce traffic fatalities, but none as much as the seat-belt law. Doane said front air bags in cars probably have contributed to a 10 percent reduction in fatalities.

Other factors in reducing traffic deaths are stricter drunken-driving laws and a new child-restraint requirement.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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