The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a new analysis indicating that highway deaths fell to 32,367 in 2011, marking the lowest level since 1949 and a 1.9% decrease from the previous year. The updated 2011 data announced this week show the historic downward trend in recent years continued through last year and represents a 26% decline in traffic fatalities overall since 2005.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that fatalities in accidents involving large trucks increased by almost 20% in all categories including truck driver deaths. The only category of truck accident fatalities to decrease was that of other-vehicle-occupant fatalities, which declined by 3.6%. NHTSA said it is working with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to gather more detailed information on the large truck occupant crashes to better understand the increase in fatalities in 2011.

While Americans drove fewer miles in 2011 than in 2010, the nearly 2% drop in roadway deaths significantly outpaced the corresponding 1.2% decrease in vehicle miles traveled. In addition, updated Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) information shows 2011 also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2011, down from 1.11 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010. Other key statistics include:

  • Fatalities declined by 4.6% for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans and pickups).
  • Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 2.5% in 2011, taking 9,878 lives compared to 10,136 in 2010.
  • The number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes rose to 3,331 in 2011 from 3,267 in 2010, an increase of 1.9%. NHTSA believes this increase can be attributed in part to increased awareness and reporting.
  • An estimated 387,000 people were injured in distraction-affected crashes, a 7% decline from the estimated 416,000 people injured in such crashes in 2010. Thirty-six states experienced reductions in overall traffic fatalities, led by Connecticut (100 fewer fatalities), North Carolina (93 fewer), Tennessee (86 fewer), Ohio (64 fewer) and Michigan (53 fewer).

"In the past several decades, we've seen remarkable improvements in both the way motorists behave on our roadways and in the safety of the vehicles they drive, and we're confident that NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Ratings Program and nationwide collaborations like ‘Click It or Ticket' and ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over' have played a key role in making our roads safer," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Even as we celebrate the progress we've made in recent years, we must remain focused on addressing the safety issues that are continuing to claim more than 30,000 lives each year."

“The latest numbers show how the tireless work of our safety agencies and partners, coupled with significant advances in technology and continued public education, can really make a difference on our roadways,” said Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation. “As we look to the future, it will be more important than ever to build on this progress by continuing to tackle head-on issues like seat belt use, drunk driving, and driver distraction.”