Reporting from Washington — The number of traffic fatalities fell for the fifth year in a row in 2010, dropping 3% to its lowest level since 1949, according to estimates released by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Fatalities fell from 33,808 in 2009 to 32,788 last year, despite the fact that Americans drove nearly 21 billion miles more in 2010 than in the year before. That works out to about 1.09 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled, a major drop from 1972, when traffic deaths peaked at 54,589 and there were 4.33 deaths for the same number of miles traveled.
"I think people really are aware of safety, and people really are aware of personal responsibility," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "These things will only increase our ability to reduce deaths on the road, so I'm certainly encouraged by the trend."
Public awareness campaigns, safer road design and improved vehicle safety are among the major factors in the reduction in fatalities, said Barbara Harsha, director of the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a nonprofit organization that represents state highway safety offices.
"With safer roadways, there are improvements like rumble strips, median barriers and pavement markings," Harsha said. "With vehicles, air bags and stability control have been particularly key."
Roy Lucke, director of research at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, says that when new safety technology is introduced, it's usually too expensive to put in most cars, but as technology has become cheaper, safety has become much more accessible to the average driver.
Side airbags, antilock brakes and traction control are all examples of now-common safety features that used to be limited to only the most expensive vehicles, Lucke said.
"What used to be a high-end option on a Mercedes is now standard equipment on a Ford," he said.
He added that a change in the attitude of the American people is another influential factor in the drop in traffic fatalities.
"The philosophy of safe driving is beginning to become more and more ingrained in society," Lucke said. "There's a large number of people who are weighing in on what's safest, and that just wasn't part of the collective consciousness just a few years ago."
But Lucke sounded a note of caution, saying that distracted driving is on the rise, as people continue to call, text and even watch TV on their cellphones while they're in the driver's seat.