1) Traffic deaths are way, way down
Vehicle fatalities in the United States have been steadily declining since the 1970s. They peaked in 1969 at 55,043. By 2012, that number had plunged to 33,561. That drop has been a major public-health success. Here's how it happened.
2) One reason: drunk drivers are killing fewer people
Data from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that deaths from drunk driving dropped by half since the early 1980s (the earliest we have numbers). And over that time period, the percentage of total car-crash deaths that were related to drunk driving also decreased — from 48 percent to 31 percent. One notable factor: in the '80s, many states raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.
3) We're also wearing seat belts more
The first three-point seat belt appeared on a car in 1959, but it wasn't until 1984 that New York State passed the first law requiring people to use them. Now all states except New Hampshire (the live-seat-belt-free-and-you-might-actually-die state) requires everyone to use them. (New Hampshire will ticket those who don't buckle up children.) As of 2012, US seat belt use averages 86 percent.
4) And we've been driving less since 2005
Yes, it is possible for Americans to drive less. And we have been. Although the general trend since 1971 has been more and more miles on the road, we've been traveling about 7 percent fewer miles per person since 2005. And fewer miles means fewer crashes.
Why? For a variety of reasons. Higher oil prices have pushed people to drive less. Fewer people were driving during the recession. The country is aging, and older people tend to drive less on average. And young people seem to have a cultural aversion to driving, for reasons laid out here.
5) Cars are getting better at avoiding crashes …
This one is a bit complicated. The first commercial anti-lock brakes were sold on American cars in the 1970s. However, anti-lock brakes by themselves don't save lives. According to a comprehensive report by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ABS has "a zero net effect on fatal crash involvements." That's because they stop cars from hitting other cars and pedestrians but increase the number of people who run off the road.
But there's a twist! Since 2011, all American cars have also had electronic stability control, which detects skidding and then applies the brakes to individual wheels to stop the slide. Together, these two technologies cut fatal crashes by 15 percent in cars and 27 percent in light trucks and vans.
6) …and airbags have made crashes much safer
Chrysler introduced the first standard driver side airbags in 1988, and they've been (mostly) saving lives ever since. Cars with airbags reduce driver deaths by about 11 percent. And in the case of a nearside crash or rollover accident, curtain and side airbags decrease deaths in the range of 8 to 42 percent.
7) But there are still too many people dying. So what's next?
There are quite a few ideas around about how to make driving even safer.
Better roads: One example is this crazy-looking
Better drivers: There are also schemes afoot to reduce drunk driving even further, such as mandatory breathalyzers right on the dashboard. And in March, the US Department of Transportation announced that, starting in 2018, all new vehicles must have rear-view cameras to avoid accidental collisions.
Self-driving cars: There's a wave of new automation features appearing in cars these days. In 2012, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (which is funded by insurance companies) determined that vehicles with autonomous braking or adaptive headlights had been producing fewer insurance claims, but that lane departure warnings don't seem to help.
Google is taking automation even further. It says that its experimental self-driving cars are less likely to tailgate the car in front of them and that they brake more smoothly than people do. In theory, someday cars will be able to drive themselves safer than we ever could.