WASHINGTON, D.C. --- The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released its 2007 estimate of total highway fatalities, and the data indicate that last year there were 41,059 deaths overall, a 3.9 percent decline from 2006 and the lowest number since 1994.

In addition, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.37, the lowest fatality rate on record.

"While GHSA is always pleased to see a decline, far too many people continue to lose their lives in preventable traffic crashes," said Christopher J. Murphy, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "In addition to the overall decline, the report offers a few other signs for optimism. GHSA is very pleased that the number of people injured in highway crashes (2.49 million) was the lowest seen since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting injury data in 1988. This is likely due in part to an increase in safety belt use."

However, Murphy went on to point out that not all the news is good. Motorcycle fatalities have increased for the tenth straight year and show no sign of easing. In fact, in 2007, the number of motorcycle riders or passengers killed on the nation's roads reached an historic high of 5,157, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. Motorcyclist fatalities now account for an alarming 13 percent of total traffic fatalities.

GHSA's recent report, "Survey of the States: Motorcycle Safety Programs," illustrates motorcycle safety challenges contributing to the increase in fatalities: a patchwork of helmet laws, an explosion in motorcycle ownership, inconsistent and inadequate licensing requirements, and lack of adequate safety education funding.

"To help combat this alarming rise in motorcycle fatalities, GHSA urges states to adopt a comprehensive motorcycle safety program, including mandatory helmet laws," Murphy said. "Presently, only 20 states have these laws, despite clear evidence of their lifesaving impact."

Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities declined by 3.7 percent in 2007. Despite this trend, nearly 13,000 still lost their lives in drunk driving crashes.

"GHSA continues to work hard to further shrink this unacceptable level of preventable deaths," Murphy said. 

GHSA is a nonprofit association representing the highway safety offices of states, territories, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 

GHSA is partnering with NHTSA, MADD and law enforcement agencies to launch the "Labor Day Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest" national crackdown -- an event that combines stepped-up law enforcement, media campaigns and public awareness to keep drunk drivers off the roads.   

While enforcement and prevention remain critical in reducing drunk driving, technology may also lead to significant new decreases. "I congratulate the eight states that have enacted laws requiring ignition interlocks for all convicted first-time drunk driving offenders and urge every state to adopt this lifesaving law," Murphy said. "Through enforcement, prevention and technology, we can turn this tragic trend around."

State highway safety offices also report that excessive speeding has reduced the expected gains in lives saved by historically high seat belt use. Studies by states and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicate that motorists are driving at record speeds, well above posted limits. "GHSA remains dedicated to working closely with Congress, NHTSA and other partners to bring the issue to the forefront of the national highway safety agenda," Murphy said.

Another troubling trend is the sharp increase in the number of pedestrians injured in traffic crashes, which rose 15 percent, from 61,000 in 2006 to 70,000 in 2007. "It is unclear what may be causing this increase," Murphy said. "GHSA pledges to work closely with NHTSA and the research community to pinpoint these reasons and develop effective countermeasures."

On a positive note, primary seat belt laws have resulted in a state's safety belt use rate rising 8-12 percentage points, which translates into hundreds of lives saved. "I urge the 24 states without primary seat belt laws to follow the lead of the 26 states with such laws and enact them soon," Murphy said. "Along with passing primary seat belt laws, high-visibility enforcement campaigns are also key to increasing belt use."

Overall, the preliminary 2007 highway fatality figures offer some hope but also raise some alarms.