Americans drove more miles last year, but fewer were killed on the nation's highways, the Department of Transportation said Friday.
Traffic fatalities dropped 3 percent in 2010 to 32,788, and the fatality rate hit its lowest level since 1949: 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
The year-over-year improvement, however, was the smallest in three years. Fatalities fell 9.7 percent in 2009 and 9.3 percent in 2008.
The decrease in accident-related deaths last year came despite a 0.7 percent increase in miles traveled, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA did not include separate figures on truck accident fatalities in its report.
Truckers are likely to point to the improvement in highway safety as they argue against proposed changes to federal hours of service rules for truck drivers.
Traffic fatalities have dropped 25 percent since their most recent peak in 2005, driven down by better designed roads, cars and increased safety belt use, DOT said.
But the gains haven't been even nationwide, and slight increases in the national traffic fatality numbers in the last two quarters of 2010 are troubling.
While the Pacific Northwest saw traffic fatalities drop 12 percent, traffic deaths in New England jumped 18 percent last year, according to NHTSA.
New England, the Northeast and Midwest -- Regions 1, 2 and 5 -- saw fatalities increase from 2 to 18 percent, while traffic deaths decreased everywhere else.
Also, traffic deaths increased 1.6 percent and 1.8 percent in the third and fourth quarter of 2010 after falling for 17 straight quarters, according to NHTSA.
The fatality rate and number of traffic deaths tend to rise in the third and fourth quarters, which include the summer and fall months.
Despite those increases, the number of fatalities in the fourth quarter was still 12.9 percent lower than the same period in 2008, NHTSA's data shows.
The national traffic fatality rate was 3.5 percent lower than in 2009 and 13.5 percent below the 1.26 deaths per 100 million miles reported for 2009.
-- Contact William B. Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org.