Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that the number of traffic fatalities in the United States last year -- 32,885 -- represents the fewest people killed on U.S. roads in a year since 1949. That's good news. Even more encouraging: The fatality rate fell to 1.1 deaths per 100 million miles driven, the lowest it has ever been.
But that's still too many deaths.
Through the years, the industry has made substantial gains in developing vehicles that can avoid crashes and improving the odds that drivers and passengers can survive crashes that happen. Along the way, automakers and suppliers have been prodded by government regulations, enticed by consumer demand for safety and abetted by technological advances.
A century ago, long before rollover standards, passive restraints, antilock brakes and mandatory seat belt laws, the biggest potential safety concern for a family was motoring along in the newfangled contraption while sitting on a tank filled with a highly flammable, explosive liquid. Eventually, that concern faded.
Now, as society embraces the infotainment era and the industry lurches into the age of electrification, there are other safety concerns.
The Chevrolet Volt fires have triggered investigations into the safety of lithium ion batteries, as well as the way the batteries are installed and protected in vehicles. Ultimately, consumers must be assured that electric vehicles are as safe as cars and trucks powered by gasoline or diesel fuel.
There may be fits and starts, but the industry will make it happen, just as automakers have made the volatility of gasoline and diesel largely a nonissue.
Meanwhile, NHTSA has identified driver distraction as the next safety crusade. The agency says distracted driving deaths totaled at least 3,092 in 2010.
While automakers and suppliers can mitigate some of the risk by installing infotainment hardware and software that limit distractions, the agency acknowledges that much of the danger comes from drivers making poor choices.
How society educates drivers and regulates behavior will be the biggest factor in reducing distracted driver deaths.