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US road safety: Deaths lowest in more than 60 years. How we got there.

In 2011 the number of fatalities per vehicle miles traveled was the lowest ever, the Department of Transportation said. Technology and education are credited with the improved US road safety.

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A sign alerts travelers to expect holiday traffic at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Nov. 20, in Houston. Improved technologies and education made America's roads safer in 2011 than they’d been in more than 60 years, the Department of Transportation said on Monday, Dec. 10.

David J. Phillip/AP/File

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Improved technologies and education made America’s roads safer in 2011 than they’d been in more than 60 years, especially for occupants of passenger vehicles, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) reported Monday, and the number of fatalities per vehicle miles traveled was at its lowest level ever.

But DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cautioned that the good news was no reason for American drivers to lower their guard, saying fatalities were still on the rise in some categories, for example for cyclists of all stripes – pedal and motor – and as a result of distracted drivers.

According to NHTSA, traffic fatalities fell to 32,367 in 2011, a 1.9 percent drop over 2010 and the lowest since 1949.

Experts say the reasons for the decline are better seatbelt and airbag technologies, improved driver behaviors on the highways, and more safely designed cars. There has also been more emphasis in recent years on formal official programs to improve safety.

“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.

But they are being careful not to overstate the case. There is still much improvement to be made. 

Here are their findings released Monday.

• Fatalities declined by 4.6 percent for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans and pickups).

• Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 2.5 percent in 2011, taking 9,878 lives compared with 10,136 in 2010.

• While Americans drove fewer miles in 2011 than in 2010, the nearly two percent drop in roadway deaths significantly outpaced the corresponding 1.2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. According to updated Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) information released Monday, 2011 saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.11 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010.

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