A report shows almost 33,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents last year, the lowest number of deaths since 1949. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Annual traffic deaths in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest level in six decades, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Released on Thursday, the figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that highway deaths fell to 32,885 in 2010. That's the lowest figure since 1949 and represents a 2.9 percent drop from 2009 — despite the fact that Americans drove almost 46 billion more miles during the year. Americans collectively drove about 3 trillion miles in 2010.
"While we have more work to do to continue to protect American motorists, these numbers show we're making historic progress when it comes to improving safety on our nation's roadways," said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement.
Industry representatives cited several contributing factors for the drop, such as graduated license programs for young drivers, hands-free cell phone laws and stiffer drunk driving penalties.
“Safer vehicles, safer roads and safer drivers as a result of traffic-safety policies that have been implemented over the last few years are certainly contributors,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA. “It’s the combination of all these factors that have given us the results we’re seeing today.”
Additional data provided by DOT supports that idea:
- Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 4.9 percent in 2010, resulting in 10,228 fatalities compared to 10,759 in 2009.
- Fatalities declined in most categories in 2010, including for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks. (Fatalities rose among pedestrians, motorcycle riders and large truck occupants.)
- Deaths among young drivers (ages 16–20) have dropped 39 percent over the last five years, compared to a 23 percent drop in the general population.
The latest figures also include a new measure of fatalities caused by distracted driving, essentially a refinement of existing data that focuses more directly on situations where dialing a phone, sending a text or the activities of another person or event are likely to lead to a crash. According to DOT, 3,092 fatalities were the result of such “distraction-affected crashes.”
“Distracted driving has become a much bigger issue in the last few years,” said Nelson. “The measure they’ll now report will be a better indicator of the true impact distractions have on traffic crashes.”
That, Nelson said, should also help direct road-safety efforts going forward: “The challenge is to identify the areas where we’re making the greatest gains and leveraging those to see the numbers drop even further.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.