NEW YORK – U.S. highway fatalities have declined by more than 1,000 people in the last year, the National Highway Transportation Safety Admin. will say in its next annual report, Deputy Administrator Ronald Medford tells Ward's at the recent 2011 World Traffic Safety Symposium here.

The most-recent data lists 33,808 highway deaths in 2009, and Medford forecasts the toll will fall to 32,788 in the upcoming 2010 report.

That is the smallest number of traffic fatalities since 1949, he says. Yet, there were 5,505,000 crashes in 2009, with auto accidents the leading cause of deaths among people 3-34 years of age.

Medford says a new generation of safer passenger vehicles is helping to reduce deaths on roads and streets, even as the U.S. New Car Assessment Program crash-test scores have fallen.

That’s because NHTSA now uses a new family of crash-test dummies and a side-impact pole test, he says, claiming the agency raised the bar on safety with these changes. The overall U.S. safety score now combines star ratings from the front, side and rollover programs.

Medford says NHTSA wants Americans to understand that even though new NCAP star ratings are lower, it does not mean the vehicles are less safe than they were a year ago.

But while the U.S. highway toll plummets, global carnage has skyrocketed to about 1.3 million deaths, 90% of which occur in low- and middle-income countries.

The rising highway fatality total has persuaded the United Nations to launch a Decade of Action program from 2011-2020 on May 11 in a worldwide effort to reduce highway deaths.

“It's taken decades for people to become convinced of (the effect) of safety technology,” Medford says. He predicts advanced crash-avoidance technology further will reduce the U.S. toll.

Most crashes occur because of bad driving behavior, including alcohol abuse and distraction. “We cannot legislate away risk,” Medford says.

The NHTSA official is concerned about the generation of drivers growing up with mobile devices they demand keep them connected at all times. “We have challenged the auto industry and the cell-phone industry to work collaboratively with us to keep the driver focus on their required task – driving – and to keep them safe.”

New vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies may help solve this problem, he says. “Our plan is to have the research supply the data necessary to enable an agency-regulatory decision in the 2013 timeframe.”

NHTSA also is collaborating with the Environmental Protection Agency on an update of new fuel-efficiency labels for vehicles. The current labels were created with a petroleum focus.

“Those labels are not good enough anymore, because of a new generation of hybrid and electric vehicles rolling on to our highways,” Medford says. “The American consumer will need more information, especially the total energy costs of electric power and plug-in electric-hybrid vehicles.

“One of the more exciting features of the proposed new labels is a symbol that can be read by a smartphone to deliver additional information directly to the consumer.”

NHTSA is working with the EPA and the California Air Resources Board to create new vehicle fuel-economy standards that will be effective from 2017-2025. “We're trying to save consumers money at the pump,” Medford says.

But as auto makers respond to pressure from motorists for better mileage, vehicle safety cannot be compromised, he says. Making vehicles weigh less is one step NHTSA will evaluate carefully.

Auto makers will not be able to reduce vehicle weight by as much as 40%, for example. Determining the optimum reduction of mass will be the subject of a joint study by NHTSA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the EPA.

Medford also notes the new EVs can be a potential danger to pedestrians and blind people. NHTSA will require adding noise to alert these individuals to the presence of the nearly silent vehicles, so they can be aware when crossing intersections. “This is a serious public health problem,” he says.