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2010 record low for traffic deaths

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Posted: 7 am ET

Beating the previous record set in 2009, U.S. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood announced today that traffic fatalities in 2010 were the lowest recorded since the government began keeping statistics in 1949:

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) early projections, the number of traffic fatalities fell three percent between 2009 and 2010, from 33,808 to 32,788. Since 2005, fatalities have dropped 25 percent, from a total of 43,510 fatalities in 2005.

The same estimates also project that the fatality rate will be the lowest recorded since 1949, with 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from the 1.13 fatality rate for 2009. The decrease in fatalities for 2010 occurred despite an estimated increase of nearly 21 billion miles in national vehicle miles traveled.

As much as automakers and auto enthusiasts have resisted increased auto safety regulation by the federal government in the past, it's hard to deny such regulations have yielded extraordinary results for everyday Americans.

While I'm sure some of the incredible decrease in traffic fatalities can be attributed to gradual improvements in licensing standards, road construction and traffic law enforcement, the majority of the credit has to go to the automotive engineers all over the world who have so successfully pushed the boundaries of safety technology.

Still, those engineers may not have been put to work on the problem of car safety to the same degree without the efforts of safety advocates like Ralph Nader. When Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed" in 1965, there was no such thing as the NHTSA, and auto safety was hardly a blip on America's radar.

By 1970, the NHTSA had been established and was beginning to police auto safety and pressure automakers to fix faulty and dangerous designs. But perhaps more importantly, auto safety slowly  became a major buying criteria for American car buyers, creating a financial incentive for automakers to create new, safer designs and safety features.

As a car guy, I love the shapely car designs of the '50s and early '60s that Nader's work ultimately helped torpedo. Because of Nader's efforts, we'll never see the huge chrome grills and bumpers that car culture rightly celebrates, and auto designers will always be somewhat limited in the shapes they create.

But as much as a lot of auto enthusiasts love to hate Nader, he deserves some credit today for all the people who got involved in traffic accidents in 2010 and survived thanks to drastically improved safety technology.

What do you think? How do you feel about Nader's work? Are the sacrifices in terms of increased car prices and more boring designs worth the safety benefits we enjoy today?

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