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Data released this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) brings some good news about the safety of our highways. Estimates of traffic fatalities for the first nine months of 2011 shows a 1.6% decrease in the number of fatalities, as compared to the same time period in 2010. In raw numbers, an estimated 24,050 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first nine months of 2011, compared to 24,437 in 2010. The actual fatality data for the full year of 2011 will only become available later this year.

This year’s estimates are particularly good news because the number of fatalities in 2011 is projected to be the lowest since NHTSA began data collection back in 1975. In fact, traffic accident fatalities have been on a steady march downward for the last seven years since 2005, when they reached a peak of 43,510.

The NHTSA data doesn’t include a discussion of why fatalities might be on the decrease in recent years. It does mention that in 2011, the number of vehicle miles traveled was about 1.3% lower than the same period in 2010. But given the improvements in traffic fatalities since 2005, there are surely a lot of factors at play here, such as improved safety features in our vehicles and improved safety in highway engineering. Even improvements in medical technology and emergency response time impact the number of people who die in traffic fatalities.

Whatever the reason—or reasons—for the improved numbers, the steadily decreasing number of traffic fatalities is good news that we are moving in the right direction.

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