According to tune2fs manual, reserved blocks are designed to keep your system from failing when you run out of space. Its reserves space for privileged processes such as daemons (like syslogd, for ex.) and other root level processes; also the reserved space can prevent the filesystem from fragmenting as it fills up. By default this is 5% regardless of the size of the partition.
On large partitions (250GB drives and up are quite common these days), the default 5% reserved space can be quite a lot (12.5Gb in my example). For ext3 partitions you can tune this parameter by using tune2fs with the parameter -m. For ex. to decrease this to 3% you would run (for ex. on /dev/sda1):
You should be very careful when ‘playing’ with this parameter and be sure you know what you are doing before changing this value. ;-)