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Across America & DoD, Youth Face Greatest Road Risks

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 1997 – The good news is fewer service members will be killed this year in off-duty motor vehicle accidents. The bad news is an estimated 255 will die from injuries sustained in private automobile and motorcycle accidents in fiscal 1997. According to statistics, the victims will be mostly male and young.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death in American men under age 21. The motor vehicle death rate per 100,000 people is especially high among 16- to 24-year-olds and people 80 years and older. At all ages, men die more often than women as a result of traffic accidents.

The figures hold true, as well, for service members. For example, of the 65 soldiers killed in off-duty motor vehicle accidents so far this fiscal year, 44 were between 17 and 27.

Although DoD predicts a slight increase from fiscal 1996 in off-duty motor vehicle fatalities, the number of service members killed in such accidents over the past 10 years has been cut in half. John Lempke, DoD's point man for auto safety, cited several reasons for the decline.

Safer driving habits, safer motor vehicles and safer highways have helped DoD avoid many fatalities, Lempke said. "When we crosscheck [DoD fatalities] with the population at large, we're doing as good or better," he said.

A comparison of 1996 traffic fatality figures for DoD and the United States at large supports Lempke's assertion. A total of 228 service members died in off-duty motor vehicle accidents in fiscal 1996, a rate of 15 deaths per every 100,000 service members. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 41,907 fatalities nationwide in calendar year 1996, nearly 16 per 100,000 but the lowest in U.S. history.

However, Lempke said, the lower number of fatalities doesn't mean much to those who lose family members, close friends or associates from work in auto or motorcycle accidents. "Our goal is to continually reduce that rate until we hit zero," he said. "One life lost unnecessarily is one too many."

The DoD Traffic Safety Program (DoD Instruction 6055.4) mandates use of restraint systems in all motor vehicles operated on DoD installations. The directive also bans even the presence of alcoholic beverages in an area of the vehicle accessible to drivers and passengers. These rules apply to all DoD components, and the directive requires a coordinated program of education, identification, law enforcement and treatment of offenders.

"As a nation, we are holding the line on the No. 1 killer of young Americans," said Ricardo Martinez, National Highway Traffic Safety administrator. "Yet clearly we must do more." Martinez cited efforts to further reduce alcohol-related traffic accidents and champion seat-belt use. He said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has formed expanded partnerships with business and the medical community, placed new emphasis on local solutions to highway safety problems and channeled more money to states to boost seat belt use and fight drunk driving.

"Safety is President Clinton's highest transportation priority," he said, "and ... we all must continue efforts to make the roads as safe as possible. Ultimately, safety is everyone's responsibility."

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