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GUEST EDITORIAL: Traffic fatalities decline even as vehicles get more efficient

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Fatal traffic crashes are down across America even while vehicles are using fuel more efficiently than ever. Both are encouraging trends that deserve to continue.

Mind you, some thought this couldn’t happen. They warned in the 1990s and early 2000s that if better gas mileage was a goal, cars would become lighter and increase the risk of fatal crashes with heavier vehicles.

Yet look at recent trends.

  • U.S. traffic fatalities have fallen fairly steadily in the prior decade, from about 43,000 in 2002 to just over 33,500 in 2012. Preliminary numbers indicate fatalities dropped again in 2013.
  • The average weight of passenger vehicles in the United States actually has been rather static in the last decade, even as highway fatality rates have fallen. The average weight was 3,934 pounds in 2002 and 3,920 pounds in 2012, according to an American Chemical Council report from last July. That latter figure was the lightest since 1999, the council reported.
  • The average fuel efficiency of new passenger vehicles and light trucks has risen remarkably in the last decade.

Much of the credit goes to new federal regulations, supported by the Obama administration and finally endorsed by major automakers, that require better fuel economy. That helps reduce the cost to drive a vehicle while also cutting harmful pollution.

New passengers cars achieved only 29 miles a gallon in 2002, but that figure jumped to 35.6 miles a gallon by 2012, according to a recent report by the United States Department of Transportation. Average mileage for light trucks had increased from 21.4 to 25, another significant gain.

Those figures will go even higher as stricter rules take effect over the next decade.

Plenty of factors have worked to reduce fatalities.

Fewer wrecks have involved drunk drivers. The total number of people killed in U.S. alcohol-impaired crashes was 13,290 in 2002, but that was down to 10,322 in 2012, according to a report last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The reported rate of seat belt use has trended up, moving from 82 percent in 2005 to 86 percent in 2012, according to the NHTSA.

Experts also point out that many design changes have made vehicles safer.

Examples include stronger roofs plus crumple zones that absorb energy in crashes. Different materials are used to make vehicles. The weight of regular steel and iron castings has fallen in the last decade, while more pounds of medium- and high-strength steel, plastics and rubber are used.

In some states, transportation departments have installed cables in medians to prevent cross-over crashes. States need to add more cable where it can protect the most drivers.

Rumble strips also have become more common to help alert drivers who might be veering off a road, either while falling asleep or using electronic devices.

More should be done to trim the number of fatalities. Distracted driving — often texting on phones — can be deadly. More people need to use seat belts, and more motorists must avoid drinking and then driving. Engineers must continue working on vehicle safety innovations.

The long-term reduction in traffic fatalities is an encouraging accomplishment, made even better by the successful efforts to produce millions of vehicles that are more fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly.