updated 4/21/2005 1:43:23 PM ET 2005-04-21T17:43:23

The highway fatality rate reached its lowest point in 2004 since records were first kept nearly 40 years ago, the government projected Thursday.

The rate dropped even as the total number of traffic deaths inched up because more drivers were on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

Overall, 42,800 people died on the nation's highways in 2004, up from 42,643 in 2003.

At the same time, people drove more miles, so the fatality rate dropped a bit, from 1.48 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2003 to 1.46 deaths in 2004. That's the lowest since records were first kept in 1966, NHTSA said.

Alcohol-related fatalities slid 2.1 percent last year, to 16,654 in 2004.

Reporting the mixed results, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the nation was "in the midst of a national epidemic" and urged motorists to buckle up.

"If this many people were to die from any one disease in a single year, Americans would demand a vaccine," Mineta said. "The irony is we already have the best vaccine available to reduce the death toll on our highways — safety belts."

Fifty-six percent of those killed weren't wearing seat belts, a rate unchanged from 2003.

Deaths of drivers and passengers in sport utility vehicle rose 4.9 percent, though it was not clear how many more SUVs were on the road last year.

The number of deaths dropped 2.4 percent for people in passenger cars and fell 2 percent for pickup trucks.

In 2004, there were more vehicles registered — 235.4 million — and they drove more miles — 2.92 trillion.

Fatal crashes involving drivers between the ages of 16 to 20 increased slightly, from 7,353 in 2003 to 7,405.

The figures predicted the seventh straight increase for motorcycle fatalities. In 2004, 3,927 motorcyclists died, an increase of 7.3 percent over 2003.

The data released Thursday are considered projections. NHTSA plans to release final 2004 fatality figures in August. NHTSA collects crash statistics from all 50 states.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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