Dec 19, 4:55 PM EST

Driving got safer last year, as traffic deaths fell 3 pct; Big truck, bike deaths rose


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DETROIT (AP) -- Driving is getting safer.

The number of traffic deaths nationwide dropped about 3 percent last year, and the rate of deaths per 100 million miles traveled tied a record low, according to government statistics.

But the number of people killed on the roads rose in two categories: Crashes involving big trucks and bicycles.

A total of 32,719 people died in U.S. crashes in 2013, down from 33,782 in 2012, according to figures compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's about 90 deaths per day, compared with 92 in 2012.

People died at a rate of 1.1 per 100 million miles driven, tying a record low set in 2011. Deaths caused by drunken and distracted drivers also fell.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said the drop came because of safer vehicles, stronger laws and enforcement, and consumer education campaigns. Over the past decade, traffic deaths have dropped nearly 25 percent.

Electronic safety devices also played a role, said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who oversees NHTSA. For example, deaths in rollover crashes dropped last year at a higher rate than the overall decline largely due to stability control, which electronically controls the brakes and throttle to stop vehicles from overturning, Friedman said.

Advertising campaigns against distracted driving, such as one against driving while texting, helped bring that category down, the government said. The number killed in crashes with distracted drivers fell nearly 7 percent to 3,154.

But the number of deaths in wrecks involving large trucks rose slightly to 3,964, and fatalities in bicycle crashes rose 1.2 percent to 743, the highest since 2006, the agency said.

Foxx said his department would take what steps it could to stem increases in bike and large truck deaths but that NHTSA "could use some help from Congress" on truck safety. He said he's concerned that increases in the number of hours that truck drivers can drive may further increase deaths. "I'm hopeful that we will continue to see declines in traffic crashes related to large trucks. We have been concerned and remain concerned that the trend may go the other way," he said.

The government spending bill that cleared Congress earlier this week includes provisions by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that suspend two key parts of a controversial rule on when and how long truckers must rest. One provision suspends requirements that driver be off duty from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. two consecutive days before restarting a new work week.

The provisions were included in the bill over vociferous objections by Foxx and safety advocates. They say working and driving hours will increase from a maximum of 70 hours per week to 84 hours. The language only applies to the life of the funding bill, which runs through 2015. It's primarily aimed at long-haul drivers.

Collins and the trucking industry have argued that government didn't consider when they put new rules on truck driver hours in place in 2013 that they might have the unintended consequence of putting more trucks on the road during morning rush hours. Her amendment suspended the rules and ordered the Transportation Department to study the matter.

For bike safety, Foxx said NHTSA is focusing on funding bike lanes and other methods of separating bikes from vehicle traffic. The agency is working to get best practices onto the nation's roads, as well as do education programs for bicyclists and drivers.

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Joan Lowy contributed from Washington, D.C.

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