American drivers in 1949 had a lot to worry about when they jumped behind the wheel of a car. In the event of a car crash, brakes would lock, there was nothing to prevent occupants being hurled from their seats and the engine would sometimes be rammed straight into the driver. Police, meanwhile, largely had to rely on guesswork to determine if a motorist was speeding and whether to pull them over.
Today, cars are fitted with everything from airbags to seatbelts to anti-lock brakes to motors that drop from under the hood in the case of a crash. Police, too, have gadgets of their own to deter bad driving and punish infractions: radar guns, breathalyzer tests and red-light cameras, for instance.
Conversely, there are more than five times the number of vehicles on the road and some of them can achieve speeds more than twice that of the fastest sports car 60 years ago. At the same time, a driver's fixation on the road is hampered by everything from buzzing cellphones to blaring iPods to enormous electronic billboards.
Advances in technology, it seems, have balanced each other out to some degree when it comes to driving, as the United States has achieved its lowest level of traffic fatalities since 1949, the first year such national statistics were calculated.
New figures released Monday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed total fatalities last year are estimated to number 32,788, compared to the 30,246 recorded in 1949. However, the total amount of driving done by Americans has skyrocketed from a little more than 683 billion kilometres to an estimated 4.8-trillion in the same period.
This makes for a projected rate of 6.36 deaths per billion kilometres travelled in 2010, a steep drop of 25 per cent since 2005. The same trend holds true in Canada: people are driving more but getting killed on the road less frequently. In 2008, the most recent year for which Canadian statistics are available, the country chalked up a rate of 7.4 deaths per billion kilometres of travel, a drop of nearly half over the previous two decades.
In the U.S., NHTSA spokesman Jose Ucles said: "We have worked very hard over the years in educating the public and working with both Congress and the states to enact laws that help keep our roads safer."
There was, however, significant regional variation, which Mr. Ucles said was due to different laws across the country: the region including California, which has a regime of tough impaired driving laws, saw a staggering 11-per-cent drop in deaths since 2009; the upper northeast, meanwhile, saw a jump of 18 per cent.
The Chicago-based Traffic Safety Coalition placed the credit for the overall fall in casualties squarely on the shoulders of technological innovation: while photo radar and red-light cameras have acted as a deterrent to speeders and rule-breakers, safety features such as improved car seats for children and crumple zones help reduce the likelihood of death for those caught in a crash.
There is, however, one important caveat.
"While technology has helped reduce fatalities, there are advances in technology that have led to other problems on our roadways - such as talking on phones and texting while driving," said the TSC's Justin Richards.
He said the next battle will be to get legislation against distracted driving, such as the prohibitions on using cellphones in Illinois and California - into place everywhere.