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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (January 16, 2001 - Oceania Flash/SPC)---New Caledonia's highest ranking officials have labeled the road fatality total of 49 persons last year as "unacceptable," the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reported.

Representatives of both the local government of New Caledonia and the French High Commission (representing the French government in the Territory) also expressed concern in the report over the 737 road accidents and the number of injuries – 1,079, including 255 seriously.

This was sufficient evidence that things had to change, they said.

However, the latest available statistics show some progress compared to 1999 figures. The number of fatalities and seriously injured diminished respectively by 15.5 and 25 percent.

But the overall number of road accidents (71.2 percent of which occurred in the capital of Nouméa) increased by six percent.

Most of the fatalities (46 out of 49) occurred on rural, unsealed roads, in the New Caledonian "brousse" (bush).

As in most countries, the main causes of road accidents were alcohol and speed, the annual report, jointly produced by the High Commission and the local government, said.

"New Caledonia enters the third millennium with a sad privilege: that of being one of the most concerned countries of the world regarding road un-safety," Les Nouvelles commented.

Earlier this month, local authorities set up "Road Safety Commissions" in a bid to reduce the number of fatalities and accidents.

The commissions' main tasks are to carry out surveys on accidents and their causes, and to make recommendations to the French territory's decision-makers.

Those suggestions could include a major reform of traffic rules, specifically adapted to New Caledonia conditions.

Further emphasis could also be placed on prevention and awareness campaigns.

The move was triggered by a general concern in New Caledonia, where statistics show that about 60 people, out of a population of about 200,000, die every year on the road.

"This is twice as high a ratio as in metropolitan France", officials said.

One of the first results of the proposed reforms could be to make safety belts compulsory again.

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