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Highway Deaths Plunge to Lowest Level Since 1949

Data could challenge assumptions about distracted driving “epidemic.”

by on Apr.01, 2011

Improved vehicle design gets some of the credit, experts say, for declining highway fatalities.

While officials caution it’s still a sizable toll, U.S. highway deaths dropped to 32,788 last year, the lowest level since 1949, continuing a relatively steady decline that safety experts credit to a variety of factors.

The 2010 number was a 3% drop from the year before, when 33,808 Americans were killed in motor vehicle and pedestrian collisions.  And the 2009 number was itself a nearly 10% decline from the year before that.

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Despite the decline, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sounded a cautionary note when releasing the data, stressing, “Too many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day. We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first.”

Exactly what is behind the latest dip in highway deaths is likely to trigger a flurry of debate.  Often, in years past, sharp declines in the overall death toll accompanied economic downturns, when American motorists reined in discretionary driving.  But that wasn’t the case in 2010.