The 2013 Chevrolet Cruze earns top safety scores from IIHS and NHTSA.

A new study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that our highways are safer than they’ve been in decades. NHTSA says in a press release that “highway deaths fell to 32,367 in 2011, marking the lowest level since 1949.” That’s a 1.9 percent decrease in traffic fatalities when compared with 2010.

"The latest numbers show how the tireless work of our safety agencies and partners, coupled with significant advances in technology and continued public education, can really make a difference on our roadways," says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Americans drove 1.2 percent fewer miles in 2011 than they did the previous year, but NHTSA says that the reduction in traffic deaths is still a significant decrease. NHTSA’s research indicates that crashes involving drunk drivers resulted in 2.5 percent fewer deaths in 2011 as compared to 2010, going from 10,136 in 2010 to 9,878 last year. Additionally, the research indicates a 4.6 percent decline in fatalities for occupants of passenger cars, SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks.

Not all of NHTSA’s research was positive. Deaths related to distracted driving rose from 3,267 in 2010 to 3,331 last year, which is an increase of 1.9 percent. Additionally, NHTSA notes a 20 percent increase in fatalities among large truck drivers, while bicyclist, pedestrian and motorcyclist deaths rose 8.7, 3 and 2.1 percent, in that order. Despite these increases, NHTSA says that traffic fatalities are down 26 percent since 2005.

The Detroit Bureau writes, “The ongoing decline appears to show the benefits of the latest advanced safety technology, like electronic stability control – some of which can ‘compensate for poor judgment’ -- as well as increased usage of simpler, time-tested devices such as seatbelts.” Tougher drunk driving enforcement and improved medical knowledge may also contribute to the reduction in traffic deaths.

NHTSA says that improvements in driver behavior contribute to the decrease, and agrees that improvements in vehicle safety tech have reduced fatalities. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says that NHTSA has “seen remarkable improvements in both the way motorists behave on our roadways and in the safety of the vehicles they drive.”

NHTSA’s crash tests became more stringent in 2011, and its 5-Star Safety Ratings can help shoppers who are on the hunt for a safe car. Additionally, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety performs crash tests, and uses its Top Safety Pick award to indicate the most crashworthy vehicles.

New cars that earn an overall rating of five stars include the 2013 Cadillac ATS and Dodge Challenger, while SUVs like the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport also earn top scores in government tests. In addition to earning five stars overall, vehicles like the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Explorer, Ford Focus, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Sonata are also IIHS Top Safety Picks.

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