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Driving is getting safer, NHTSA study says

Christina Rogers covers VW and regulatory/legislative issues for Automotive News.

WASHINGTON -- Are cars getting safer? U.S. auto regulators would say yes, they are.

On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study that concludes “better-designed, safer vehicles” have contributed to a decline in roadway crashes and fatalities.

While the report doesn’t focus on one specific safety technology or design improvement, it says the likelihood of crashing per 100,000 miles of driving has decreased five percentage points in a 2008 model compared with a 2000 model.

In that same model-year span, the chances of escaping a crash uninjured also rose from 79 percent to 82 percent as a result of safer designs, the study found.

The impact?

NHTSA reports that in 2008 alone, these advances saved an estimated 2,000 lives, helped 1 million occupants avoid injury and prevented about 700,000 crashes. The agency based its results on an analysis of police-reported crash data.

“We expect this trend to continue as automakers add advanced safety features to their fleets and continue to improve vehicle designs to earn top safety ratings under our newly updated 5-star crash-test program,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement.

And it has. In 2010, U.S. traffic fatalities fell to their lowest level in six decades, NHTSA said. That year the agency reported 32,885 deaths. They fell another 1.7 percent in 2011 to 32,310.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group representing 12 automakers, was quick to chime in on the study’s results and take some credit for the industry’s efforts.

In a statement, the alliance made sure to point out:

“Our roads our safer today because automakers are doing many things very well…”

Among them, safety features the alliance says were “developed and implemented voluntarily” by the manufacturers (note the word “voluntarily”): antilock brakes, stability control, side airbags, side curtains, lane departure warning, etc, etc.

Not to mention all the safety features NHTSA has mandated.

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