Have the nation’s roads gotten safer or less safe over the past few decades?

With the proliferation of mobile devices — and the advent of such dangers as texting while driving — over the past 10 years or so, would you guess that there are more people being killed in motor vehicle crashes than there were 20 or 30 years ago?

When you’re out driving and you see people looking at their cell phones instead of the road, swerving in and out of lanes, and displaying other reckless behavior, it’s easy to get the sense that our roads have become more dangerous than they used to be.

Despite such anecdotal evidence, federal statistics actually show that our nation’s roads are far safer now than they used to be — that is, judging by the numbers of fatalities and injuries in motor vehicle crashes.

That surprising fact is made clear in data released recently by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Downward trends
According to NHTSA’s latest Fatality Analysis Reporting System data, there were 33,561 highway deaths in 2012. While that was a 3% increase from 2011, NHTSA officials pointed out that highway deaths over the past five years continue to remain at historic lows.

Fatalities in 2011 were at the lowest level since 1949. Even with the slight increase in 2012, the level of fatalities is the same as it was in 1950.

Going back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were consistently more than 50,000 highway deaths per year — that’s about 50% higher than the 2012 total, 33,561.

A key factor in comparing fatalities from year to year is the number of miles driven. A chart in NHTSA’s recent report (available at www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811856.pdf) shows the annual fatality rates by 100 million vehicle miles traveled, all the way back to 1963.

In that year, the rate was 5.18 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles. In the half century since then, the highway fatality rate has fairly steadily declined. In 2012, it was down to 1.14 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles.

The injury rate has also been decreasing over the past few decades. In 1988, the rate was 169 people injured per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2012, it was about half of that — 80 people injured per 100 million vehicle miles.

Dangers remain
Of course, the fact that highway deaths and injuries are down doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels.

In the pupil transportation business, the problem of motorists illegally passing school buses continues to endanger our students. The latest national stop-arm running survey found 85,279 violations in a single day. This issue calls for enhanced enforcement of stop-arm laws, more public awareness efforts and continued training and vigilance.

While there will always be some degree of danger on our nation’s roads, it’s at least reassuring to know that, overall, highway safety has been improving.

Not everything is worse than it used to be.