Want to read some good news? The roads are much, much safer than they used to be.

How much safer? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 32,367 died in motor vehicle crashes in 2011 – the fewest since 1949, when far fewer Americans were driving far fewer miles. During the late 1960s through the early 1980s, around 50,000 died on the roads each year. More than 1,000 fewer passenger car occupants died in 2011 than in 2010.

In Arkansas, 549 people died as a result of auto accidents in 2011, compared to 571 in 2010.

The fatality rate per miles driven has plummeted. In 1949, seven people died for every one million vehicle miles traveled. In 2011, one died. The number of people injured – 2.22 million in 2011 – also has been decreasing, though 2011 saw a slight uptick in the number of injuries per miles traveled.

These statistics, of course, will offer little comfort to someone who has lost a loved one in an accident. When it’s your family that’s affected, the only number that matters is one. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if policymakers had known when cars were invented that they would someday kill 32,000 people – and that would be considered "good" news.

But the decrease is still significant. In 1972, 54,589 people were killed in auto accidents. Almost as many Americans died on the highways that year as died in the entire Vietnam War, which was still ongoing at the time. And car accidents disproportionally kill young people.

Why so fewer deaths? Cars are much safer now than they were in the 1970s. They’re equipped with airbags and antilock brakes. They’re designed to absorb more of the impact so the passengers absorb less – as anyone who has had their car "totaled" by what looked like a fender-bender can attest. The economy also has had an effect. After hovering around 40,000 annual deaths for about two decades, the number fell significantly during the Great Recession as people drove less.

But there also have been changes in society-wide attitudes and behaviors. To name two examples, it wasn’t long ago that seat belts ended up stuffed somewhere within the cushions, and drunk driving was considered a tolerable offense. Not so now, thanks to changes in the law and to effective public relations campaigns. Alcohol-related fatalities fell by 2.5 percent to 9,878 in 2011, meaning 258 fewer lives were lost due to drunk drivers than the year before. NHTSA says seatbelt usage hit an all-time high, 86 percent, in 2012. My eight-year-old daughter will fuss at me if I so much as try to back out of the driveway before buckling up.

What will happen as the economy improves, assuming it does? The long-term trend in total fatalities has been downward, but it inched up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when times were better.

On the other hand, deaths per miles traveled have been on an almost unbroken decline for 60 years and likely will continue. Cars will get safer and smarter. Collision avoidance systems, where the car senses the traffic around it and warns the driver of danger or even applies the brakes, will become more commonplace. Cars will eventually communicate with the road infrastructure. Eventually, they will drive themselves if we’ll let them.

So the news is good and may get better. However, the highways are still a dangerous place where more than 32,000 people were killed in 2011.

Half were not wearing their seat belt, so be careful and buckle up. It’s the law in Arkansas, and if the police don’t see you, my daughter might.


Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com