How can this be so? According to researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), it comes down to two things: airbags and the economy. And even though distracted driving practices like talking, texting, or eating were involved in thousands of crashes (3,400 in 2008), the gains from airbags and economic affects outweigh those hazards.
Just during those four years of study, airbag deployment increased 220 percent—indicative of the side airbags that became much more common in new cars this past decade.
Furthermore, the researchers find, the largest reductions in fatal crashes have occurred during morning and afternoon commute times. Drivers are not only covering fewer miles (even in leisure activities), they're also keeping their speed down; more fuel-efficient driving styles might also play a role.
Also likely related to the economic downturn are a 30-percent decrease in fatal crashes in construction zones and an almost 20-percent drop in fatal crashes involving large commercial trucks.
The researchers also noted significant drops in instances of drowsy, sleepy, or reckless driving.
The Michigan researchers say that a reduction of this magnitude in such a short time hasn't happened—except for WWII—since road-safety statistics were first kept in 1913.