The traffic safety administration has been tracking auto fatalities since 1966, when there were more than 50,000 deaths on the highways. The number of deaths peaked in 1972 at 54,589, then generally declined over the next two decades. The total has hovered above 40,000 the past few years.
"For the second year in a row we are seeing historic lows in deaths on our nation's roads," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a statement. "Every American can be more confident than ever they will arrive at their destination safe and sound."
NHTSA did not cite a cause for the dramatic decline in highway deaths, but it overlaps with several other trends.
The Federal Highway Administration, which counts the number of cars on the road, is reporting a significant decline in the number of miles Americans are driving every month beginning in late 2007 and continuing through the first three quarters of 2008.
High gas prices through most of the year accelerated a shift to more fuel efficient cars and to alternatives to driving. Subways, buses, commuter rail and light-rail systems are reporting record increases in ridership. Amtrak, the nation's intercity passenger railroad, said it carried more passengers and brought in more revenue in fiscal 2008 than in any other year in its 37-year history.
Acting NHTSA Administrator David Kelly said it's likely safety measures also played a role in the decline in fatalities: seatbelt use is at its highest level ever, greater numbers of SUVs and other lights trucks are equipped with technology that prevents rollovers, and the federal government has been working with state and local law enforcement agencies on anti-drunk driving campaigns.
"I'm thrilled about these numbers," Kelly said. "When you talk about reductions in traffic fatalities in one year you are usually talking about hundreds in a good year. The fact that deaths are down 3,000 so far this year is staggering."