The nation recorded its lowest highway fatality rate ever last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The numbers announced Monday represent a decrease from the year before and the largest drop in total deaths in 15 years.

“Tough safety requirements and new technologies are helping make our vehicles safer and our roads less deadly,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said. “But we all must do more when so many are killed or seriously hurt on our roads every day.”

In 2006, 42,642 people died in traffic crashes, a drop of 868 deaths compared to 2005. This 2 percent decline in traffic deaths contributed to the historic low fatality rate of 1.42 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, Peters said.

Texas saw a 1.7 percent decline in the number of fatalities, experiencing 61 fewer fatalities in 2006 as compared to 2005, or 3,475 fatalities vs. 3,536, respectively.

“We are meeting our goal to improve safety in Texas,” said Mark Ball, public information officer for the Texas Department of Transportation. “Enhanced safety is one of our five key goals and our most sacred responsibility to the state’s driving public.”

Most significantly, fatalities of occupants of passenger vehicles-cars, SUVs, vans and pickups-continued a steady decline to 30,521, the lowest annual total since 1993, Peters said, noting injuries were also down in 2006, with passenger car injuries declining by 6.2 percent and large truck injuries falling by 15 percent, she said.

Peters cautioned that troubling trends continue in motorcycle and alcohol-related crashes. Alcohol-related fatalities rose slightly in 2006 over the previous year, while motorcycle deaths rose by 5.1 percent. This is the ninth year in a row the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has seen an increase in motorcycle deaths.

“Proper training, clothing, gear and, above all, helmet use are essential to reversing this deadly trend,” Peters said.

Drunk driving enforcement will continue to be a top priority for the Department, said NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason, noting no improvement in last year’s alcohol-related fatalities numbers.

In 2006, 15,121 fatalities involved a driver or motorcycle operator, pedestrian or cyclist who had a .08 or above BAC (blood alcohol concentration) compared to 15,102 in 2005, she said.

“There is a personal story behind these statistics and for every alcohol-related fatality, the family left behind is shattered forever,” Nason said.

NHTSA collects crash statistics annually from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to produce reports on fatalities and injuries.

While the downward move in traffic fatalities is “great news,” Ball cautions, “Even one fatality is too many.”

“We will continue to work every day to improve safety on our highways,” he said, noting the reduction is being reported as TxDOT implements “the largest single roadway safety program in Texas history.”

Texas voters authorized highway safety bonds in 2003, with Ball noting about 650 safety projects have been authorized statewide.

The projects including widening narrow two-lane roadways, the installation of barriers in the medians of divided highways, the addition of left turn lanes at highway intersections and the construction of new overpasses.

Another factor Ball attributes the decline in deaths to is an increase in the use of seat belts by the public.

“Today we have a seat belt use rate in Texas of nearly 92 percent,” Ball said. “That is almost a 16-point rise in seat belt use since 2001.”

Ball said the public can help reduce the number of fatalities even further by always using their seat belts, driving at appropriate speeds for the conditions and never driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“It is significant to note that the slight decline in fatalities came at a time when our state’s population and vehicle miles traveled went up,” Ball said. “As more and more people call our state home, there will be more cars and trucks out on the road.

“We cannot step away from the important work of maintaining a safe, reliable transportation network,” he said. “It’s not cheap or easy work, but it critical to our citizens and vital to our state’s future.”

E-mail JoAnn at editor@waxahachiedailylight.com