Toyota Rollover accident

Automotive fatalities continue to drop year-over-year, which is perhaps not surprising in and of itself. What is surprising, however, is a study that notes a massive falloff in the number of motoring deaths. According to The Wall Street Journal, the total number of road fatalities in 2009 was 33,963 compared to 43,510 in 2005 – a 22 percent decline. That is the steepest rate of decline since automobiles entered mass production in the beginning part of the 20th century. So what gives?

According to a new study by a pair of University of Michigan researchers, it's certainly not the invasion of handheld technology, which the story says has created a rise in fatalities due to inattentive driving. Keeping our eyes on an incoming text message or email has resulted in a 42 percent rise in distracted-driving fatalities from 2005 to 2008. However, those accidents only account for a small portion of the total number of fatalities, and it's likely that with increased awareness that more deaths are being classified in this way.

Safety technology continues to improve, and new technologies continue to filtering down into more affordable vehicles. Deaths from side-impact crashes have declined more quickly than the decline rate for overall deaths, meaning that more people are surviving these types of accidents.

Another, more interesting, statistic is the drop in fatal accidents during rush hour driving periods. Why has that number fallen in recent years compared to 2005? According to the WSJ's theorizing, it's the economy. More folks out of work means fewer people on the road during rush hour. You just might not notice it when you are stuck in traffic screaming at the car in front of you that just cut you off to make its exit.

Regardless of why overall traffic fatalities are down, it's great to hear that this number is falling. However, as the economy picks back up, it's expected that traffic fatalities will as well.

[Source: The Wall Street Journal | Image:Chip Somodevilla/Getty]