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Auto sales are on the mend. Holiday shopping is booming. And now, there's a bit more good news: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has just announced that traffic fatalities for 2010 reached historic lows. In fact, the U.S. hasn't seen stats like these since 1949.
In all, 32,885 people died on the nation's roads last year. That is, of course, 32,885 too many, but it represents an improvement over the 33,808 who lost their lives in 2009 (which was, itself, a figure not seen since 1950).
What's remarkable is that this decrease in fatalities happened at the same time that Americans were driving more. All told, we traveled 46 billion miles more than we did last year -- a jump of about 1.6%. As a result, the traffic fatality rate -- that is, the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled -- hit the lowest point on record. In 2010, there were 1.10 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles. For comparison's sake, the 2009 rate was 1.15.
* Drinking and driving may be less of a problem these days. Last year, 10,228 people died in accidents involving drunk drivers -- a drop of 4.9% compared to the 10,759 killed in 2009. Unfortunately, the DOT doesn't offer any suggestions as to why we might be seeing such a dip.
* There were also fewer fatalities in passenger cars and light trucks, including SUVs. The DOT doesn't suggest any reasons for this fact, either, but it might be related to the increasing availability of electronic stability control -- which, as of September of this year, is now mandatory equipment on all passenger vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.
* The DOT says that there are three areas in which traffic fatalities rose: among pedestrians, motorcycle riders, and occupants of large trucks. No clues as to why that might be, though quieter electric cars might -- might -- have something to do with the pedestrian issue, and piecemeal helmet laws could be having an effect on the motorcycle stats.
* The biggest area of concern for the DOT, however, is distracted driving. LaHood and his team conducted an extensive assessment of drivers in the U.S. and found that the majority are happy to answer calls behind the wheel, and in some demographics -- namely, 21-to-34 year-olds -- most will also make calls. Worse, among 18-to-24 year-olds, drivers commonly send text messages and emails, too. (Specifically, the stats are 44% of drivers 18-to-20 and 49% of drivers 21-to-24.) In all, some 3,092 fatalities were linked to distracted driving in 2010 or about 9.4% of total traffic deaths. That's significantly less than the 5,474 who died in 2009, but the DOT is pushing hard for improvement.
For complete details of the DOT's distracted driving study -- which found that talking to other passengers in a vehicle is the most distracting activity of all -- you can download the entire PDF here.