Washington More people than ever are wearing seat belts and fewer children are being killed by air bags, the government says in fresh evidence that a decades-long focus on auto safety is paying off.
Automakers are building safer vehicles, but experts say people's behavior is the big reason for reduced highway fatalities.
"The most crashworthy vehicle, the most well-designed car in the world is not going to help you in many situations unless you take the personal responsibility to help the vehicle help you," National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Jeffrey Runge said.
NHTSA released data Thursday showing 73 percent of people observed in the front seat of vehicles around the country this summer were wearing seat belts the highest since the agency began keeping statistics seven years ago, when 58 percent wore seat belts.
Experts say more seat belt usage, along with tougher laws and improvements in highway and auto safety, are part of a change in the culture of road travel that emphasizes safety and is responsible for a huge drop in the highway death rate.
Last year, there were 41,800 fatalities, or 1.6 deaths per million miles traveled. There were 47,878 deaths in 1977, and because vehicle miles traveled each year has increased significantly since then, the rate was more than double at 3.3 per million.
NHTSA, insurers and the auto industry spend millions each year on ad campaigns encouraging motorists to buckle up and put young children in car seats away from air bags.
The Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign celebrated its fifth anniversary Thursday by releasing a report that shows the number of small children killed by air bags has fallen sharply since 1996.
Government statistics show the number of confirmed child deaths fell from 25 in 1996 to six in 2000, while the number of automobiles with air bags rose from 22 million to more than 80 million.
At least 191 people, including 116 children, have been killed by the force of deploying air bags, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Air bags have been credited with saving about 7,224 lives.