Jeffrey D. Allred, File, Deseret News
Motorists travel along I-15 near 10600 South in the smog and snow in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011.

For all the talk about an increase in distracted driving from texting and cellphone use, and for all the concern about whether 16 is too young for a license, there is good news. Preliminary figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that motor vehicle fatalities last year fell to their lowest level since 1949, measured in more relatable terms.

That is a remarkable statistic. In 1949, there was no interstate highway system, and people drove less than they do now. Families had one car, if any. The number of cars per household in the U.S. jumped 66 percent between 1969 and 2010 alone, according to the Transportation Department.

Measured in a more meaningful way, by the number of deaths per miles driven, the current figure is on pace to be the lowest since record-keeping began in 1921.

What in the world is going on?

That's a good question. There are no shortages of reasons being offered for this trend. All are mere speculation, but all most likely are contributing factors. Modern automobiles are safer; they include air bags and other devices that increase the odds of surviving an accident. Large SUVs today are designed so their bumpers do not strike smaller cars high enough to contribute to physical harm. Modern highways are designed to accommodate high speeds safely — states have increased speed limits since the 1990s with no adverse affects, and stretches of I-15 through central and southern Utah have 80 mph posted limits. Also, with the economy sluggish, people are driving a little less.

In addition, seat belt crusades have made buckling up a natural part of the culture. Anti-drunken-driving crusades seem to have paid off, as well. Several states, including Utah, have passed graduated license laws, requiring teenagers to have a certain amount of experience before they can drive with other teenagers in the car.

Speaking of teens, the number of them dying in car accidents has dropped 64 percent since 1975, the first year the government began tracking that demographic.

Old-timers remember the days when the National Safety Council would issue a press release before each major holiday, estimating the number of auto-accident deaths that were about to happen. The idea was to scare Americans into being a bit more careful. It seldom worked. The good old days were not so good on the highway.

All this good news, however, is no reason for people to become complacent. The estimate is that 32,310 people died in accidents last year. If a disease came along and claimed that many lives, there would be no end to efforts to find a cure. This should be considered an unacceptable number, and all of the above factors should continue in efforts to push down the number.

Distracted driving remains a huge concern. While the government does not have figures yet for distracted-driving deaths in 2011, it reported 3,092 of them in 2010, which represented 9.4 percent of all highway fatalities. This seems a good area in which to focus on keeping the downward trend alive.