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Indian highway death rate still surpasses nation

Federal officials on Tuesday announced that motor vehicle deaths have dropped for the first time in six years but the rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives still tops the rest of the nation.

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, the number of people killed in 2003 fell by nearly 1 percent while the number injured fell by 1.3 percent. Officials attributed the improvement to increased use of seat belts.

"The decreasing number of traffic fatalities and record low death rate on our roads shows that we are headed down the right road," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Based on population, the death rate for the nation was 14.93 per 100,000 last year. This represented a 1.8 percent drop from 2002, officials said.

But motor vehicle deaths among Native Americans are still higher than the nation. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Native Americans die on highways at rates 1.7 to 2.0 times the national average.

Indian Health Service (IHS) statistics put the death rate for Indian Country at 33 per 100,000, more than twice the rate reported yesterday. And, depending on the region, motor vehicle deaths vary dramatically

The Navajo area, encompassing the entire Navajo Nation, and the Aberdeen area, encompassing tribes in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa, have the highest rates, according to the IHS. The Billings area, covering Montana and Wyoming, and the Phoenix area, covering Arizona, Nevada and Utah, followed closely.

The high rate among Native Americans is attributed to several factors, including poor road conditions, low seatbelt use and alcohol. In particular, alcohol is twice as likely to be factor in motor vehicle accidents for Indians than the general population, according to the IHS.

Despite the disparity, the motor vehicle death rate in Indian Country has decreased over the past two decades. In 1998, for example, it was 52.2 per 100,000 compared to 19.7 per 100,000 for the general population.

Besides combating drunk driving, tribes have enacted mandatory seatbelt laws. After the Navajo Nation enacted a seatbelt law in 1998, the tribe saw seatbelt use jump from 14 percent to 75 percent and saw the number of accidents drop. The costs associated with motor vehicle injuries also dropped by more than $10 million.

Get the Report:
Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality Counts and Injury Estimates for 2003 (August 10, 2004)

Relevant Documents:
Briefing on Racial/Ethnic Health Disparities | Health Status of American Indians Compared with Other Racial/Ethnic Minority Populations