To fully appreciate the government report on traffic deaths released this week, it may be necessary to inject a little historical perspective.
Forty years ago this month, the National Safety Council issued a press release estimating how many people would die on the nation's highways during the holiday season of 1972. It said between 550 and 650 people would die during the three days surrounding Christmas, and another 430 to 530 more would die over the New Year weekend.
A grizzly prediction such as that seems jarring by today's standards, but it was standard fare back then. The NSC regularly made predictions for deaths on major holidays, and these typically were right (592 people died on the highways during that Christmastime). The idea was to scare people into being more cautious, while governments struggled with ways to make cars and highways safer.
Count that struggle as leading to success, mostly. Much work is left to do. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still counted 32,367 deaths among motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians in 2011. That's the equivalent of an entire moderate-sized town. But in perspective, the totals were exceptionally good.
The last time the nation saw so few traffic deaths it was 1949 and Harry S. Truman was president. And while Americans are driving less (overall miles driven in 2011 were down by 1.2 percent), the fatality rate last year was only 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven, which was the lowest ever recorded.
In Utah, 240 people died on highways in 2011, down from 253 the year earlier, a 5.1 percent decline.
Even drunken driving was down by 2.5 percent over the previous year, an important trend that needs to continue gaining momentum.
And 2011 was no anomaly. It was just another in a long string of steadily improving years. Since 2005, highways deaths are down 26 percent.
Experts seem perplexed. A government official told The Associated Press, "There are more questions than answers about what is occurring here."
Some factors seem obvious. Modern high-speed highways are designed with safety in mind. Even higher speed limits — much of I-15 through central Utah is posted at 80 mph now — haven't led to increases in accidents. And cars are being designed with ever-improving safety features, from air bags to sophisticated warning indicators. Seatbelt laws seem to have helped, too. Mostly gone are the days when children would bounce around a sedan's back bench without being strapped down.
There are, however, some clouds on the horizon. The figures showed an increase in deaths among occupants of large trucks, as well as among bicyclists and pedestrians.
This is evidence of two things. More people are walking and riding bikes, even for commuting purposes, and trucking is a dangerous profession.5 comments on this story
It also indicates that the decline in overall deaths may be more due to safer cars and highways than a dramatic improvement in the competence of people behind the wheel.
Already, the government is working on new rules for stability control technology in large trucks. Bicyclists can hope new roadways are built with them in mind, including bike lanes, and that their growing numbers will increase awareness among motorists.
Preliminary data shows the decline in deaths may not hold for 2012. Perhaps the one aspect of this equation that hasn't received enough attention — driver awareness and the need to avoid distractions — needs greater emphasis.
While many adults have fond memories of 1972, the nation can ill afford to return to the days when predictable carnage cast a damper on the holidays.