It would be hard to convince motorists - especially those who have just completed a white-knuckle trip through the Missionary Ridge Cut with trucks hurtling past at high speeds - that the nation's roads are safer now than in the past, but that is true. U.S. highway deaths have dropped to the lowest level in more than 60 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Welcome as those numbers are, safety officials agree that it should be lower, and pledge to work toward that goal.
The road safety gains of the past few years are notable. An estimated 32,788 people died in U.S. traffic accidents in 2010, down 3 percent from the previous year, NHTSA revealed in a preliminary report that will be finalized later this year. That's a 25 percent decline since 2005, when the agency reported 43,510 fatalities. It's the fewest number of deaths reported on the nation's roads since 1949 - when there were significantly fewer drivers on the roads. Careful study helps explain why the decline in deaths is so impressive.
Knowledgeable highway safety officials had expected a decline in highway deaths. History was their guide. When times are tough - and that's certainly been the case for the last couple of years - the number of deaths declines. That's because financially strapped businesses and individuals reduce discretionary driving. That was not the case, according to the 2010 report.
The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the number of miles traveled by U.S. drivers in 2010 rose to 20.5 billion, a 0.7 percent increase compared to 2009. Historically, such an increase would produce a higher number of deaths. It did not.
In fact, the actual number of deaths as well as the rate of deaths per 100 million miles, the latter perhaps a better measurement of highway safety, both declined. The rate of deaths per 100 million miles traveled was 1.09 last year, compared to 1.46 deaths in 2005. Every region of the country, except the Northeast, reported declines. Tennessee mirrored the national trend.
A highway safety official in Nashville said Friday that 225 people died on the state's roads in January through March in 2010. To date this year, 172 fatalities had been reported.
There are several reasons for the decline. Perhaps the most important is the increased use of seat belts. Usage reached about 84 percent in the last year measured. Stepped-up enforcement of drunken driving laws contributed as well. Alcohol-impaired fatalities declined by more than 7 percent in the last reporting period. Other factors are involved in the decline as well.
The nation's vehicular fleet is getting younger, and cars on the road now have more standard safety features - multiple air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes - than in the past. Stronger car-seat laws now protect children. New and updated roadways in locales where government can afford to build or upgrade them often have built-in safety features like rumble strips and median and entrance and exit ramp barriers. All contribute to improved road safety.
The U.S. decline in deaths and injuries has been achieved through the shared effort of highway safety officials, law enforcement agencies, roadway builders and individual drivers. It's not enough, though. A continued emphasis on safe driving habits, on building safer vehicles and improving infrastructure should prompt continued reductions in what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood correctly calls "preventable roadway tragedies."