Highway deaths last year fell to their lowest level since 1949 but the number of bicyclists and pedestrians dying on America's roads continued to rise, federal safety regulators said Monday.
Overall traffic fatalities fell 1.9% to 32,367 in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Roadway deaths have been falling steadily for some time, the agency said, and last year's level represented a 26% decline from 2005.
However, bicycle deaths rose 8.7% to 677 and pedestrian deaths rose 3% to 4,432, the NHTSA said.
"Fatalities are more of an urban phenomenon," said Ted Rogers, who writes the BikinginLA.com blog.
"You have high population areas like California where you have a lot of deaths, and then you have rural states that don't have the traffic, they don't have the cyclists," said Rogers, who tracks cyclist deaths in the region.
Last year, he said, 70 cyclists in the seven-county Southern California region died in various road mishaps. That is up from the 49 in the previous year.
The NHTSA said 70% of bicycle-related deaths nationally involve head injuries but that barely one-third of cyclists wear helmets.
Another group showing an increase in road deaths were occupants of large trucks. Fatalities in that category rose 20% to 635, possibly a result of more truckers being on the road as the economy recovers.
In the coming year, NHTSA is to be working toward final safety standards that would require electronic stability control technology on large trucks -- it is mandatory on all new cars sold -- and improve tire performance standards. The agency also plans to propose a rule on the use of speed-limiting devices on heavy vehicles.
While 36 states saw reductions in overall traffic fatalities last year, highway deaths in California increased 2.6% to 2,791. It tied with New Jersey for the greatest increase in the number of fatalities, up 71. Moreover, California had the second-highest number of fatalities. Only Texas, with 3,016 (a decline of seven from the previous year), had more.
Nationally, deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 2.5% in 2011, taking 9,878 lives, compared with 10,136 in 2010.