Last year, traffic-related fatalities dropped to 33,963 in the U.S., the lowest since 1954, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled reached 1.16, an all-time low. In another time, these statistics would have been cause for celebration, but today there is no such thing as an acceptable number of casualties on the highway.

Governments across the globe are enacting ever more stringent legislation to improve vehicle safety, sometimes in the same breath as they order auto makers to improve fuel economy and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

In the European Union, there is serious talk of reducing traffic fatalities to zero in the foreseeable future.

Volvo Car Corp. already has announced it wants to eliminate deaths in its vehicles by 2020.

U.S. goals are not yet as far-reaching, but in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.’s unintended-acceleration woes, David Strickland, NHTSA’s new chief, has an ambitious agenda that includes new rules and higher expectations for how all auto makers respond to alleged safety problems.

Safety “is a moral obligation,” Strickland tells attendees at the SAE World Congress in April. “Consumer safety is absolutely the priority here. The car is a mode of transportation that has become incredibly complex, with wonderful technologies, and it creates great joy and pleasure. But if the car is not safe, we’ve lost it all.”

Already, tough new federal safety regulations intended to provide better protection, especially for small occupants, in front and side collisions are coming for the ’11 model year. One of the results will be more airbags placed throughout the vehicle.

Industry sources say legislation aimed specifically at sudden-acceleration issues also likely will be enacted shortly.

This will include mandatory brake override systems to eliminate the possibility of stuck throttles; minimum performance standards for electronically controlled throttles; and a requirement for Event Data Recorders that track at least 60 seconds prior and 15 seconds after a vehicle crash and airbag deployment.

While these rules, and others like them, no doubt will improve vehicle safety and save lives, a growing chorus of consumer advocates and safety-system suppliers is arguing the focus of new regulations should be avoiding crashes altogether.

The reason is simple. According to independent studies, 80%-90% of crashes are caused by driver error, not freak accidents or electronic ghosts.

In 2008, nearly 6,000 Americans died in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than 500,000 were injured, NHTSA reports.

A study of Germany’s accident database shows about 80% of drivers involved in rear-end collisions did not even touch their brakes prior to the crash or barely used their full capacity.

In other words, in the majority of crashes, deaths and injuries are caused by drivers not paying attention.

This has led automotive suppliers such as Continental AG, TRW Inc, Robert Bosch GmbH, Denso Corp. and others to begin aggressively promoting advanced driver-assistance systems, such as blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, emergency brake assist, adaptive cruise control and a host of other technologies aimed at saving drivers from their inattentiveness.

At a recent press conference, Norbert Hammerschmidt, Continental’s director-customer programs for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, argues that 97.5% of the most common accidents involving personal injury in Germany can be eliminated or significantly mitigated by ADAS technologies.

While suppliers clearly have financial motivations, the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and NHTSA agree with their claims.

In the U.S., alone, IIHS says blind-spot warning and emergency brake assist could prevent 457,000 and 417,000 crashes per year, respectively. Forward-collision-warning systems could prevent or reduce the severity of 2.3 million wrecks each year and prevent up to 210,000 non-fatal injury crashes and 7,166 fatal accidents each year.

IIHS is most enthusiastic about electronic stability control, the one ADAS technology the U.S. government is phasing in for all new vehicles by 2012. Europe is mandating ESC for all new vehicles in 2014.

“We are greatly reducing the risk that someone dies in a motor vehicle crash. We do it by making the vehicle safer if you do crash and increasingly making the vehicle less likely to crash in the first place. The most notable technology in that regard is electronic stability control,” IIHS President Adrian Lund told Ward’s earlier this year.

“We are seeing more than a 50% reduction in single-vehicle fatal crashes with vehicles that have ESC. Even in crashes that are not serious, we are seeing a 20% reduction in collision damage,” says Lund.

ESC is particularly effective in preventing young, inexperienced drivers from losing control. Teenage drivers have the highest accident rates by far, says Lund.

NHTSA regulators recognize the value of ADAS technologies, and they are studying forward collision and mitigation, lane-departure prevention and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, with possible rulemaking scheduled for 2011.

“As more electronic sensors and computing capability are incorporated into modern vehicles…these technologies can detect and compensate for driver errors such as inattention, drowsiness or driver misjudgment,” Ronald Medford, NHTSA acting deputy administrator acknowledged last year.

However, even the greatest proponents of the technologies acknowledge many hurdles remain. Some consumers erroneously believe the systems will take control of the vehicle away from the driver. Others find system alerts, such as lane-departure warnings, annoying and distracting. But the biggest issue by far is cost.

The radar system and related components necessary for adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning and braking systems add about $2,200 to the cost of a car, says Dean McConnell, director-PSAD Customer Center at Continental.

Blind-spot detection adds $400 to a vehicle sticker and lane-departure warning about $550. McConnell tries to downplay the expense by pointing out leather seats and premium-audio systems typically cost $800 to $1,000 extra, but he acknowledges safety costs still are too high for mass acceptance.

In mid-June, Ralf Cramer, president of Continental’s Chassis & Safety Div., vowed to bring prices down and make ADAS technologies affordable on all vehicles, under the slogan “safety for everyone.”

“We are making the price of safety technologies attractive and, as a result, see them being increasingly installed in all vehicle categories and markets. Safety systems are no longer for privileged premium models,” he tells reporters.

Among the ways Continental will achieve this is by using lower-cost sensors and radar systems designed only for lower speeds (where most collisions occur) and integrating components and sensors into low-cost modules that can be mass-produced less expensively, Cramer says.

This strategy is being pursued by other major suppliers, as well.

Linking forward-looking radar, ESC, electric-steering, lane-departure warning, haptics and other devices can produce profound results.

Continental recently unveiled a new technology that actually helps drivers swerve around obstacles in an emergency.

Called emergency steer assist, Continental officials are careful to point out the system does not actually take control and steer the car autonomously. But it does guide the driver’s steering by strategically resisting or enabling the turning of the steering wheel as the driver performs emergency maneuvers.

This prevents the driver from turning the wheel too violently in a panic situation.

In the most advanced configurations, the steering system also engages electronic stability control and uses rear-wheel steering to allow the car to stay composed during a sudden change in direction that normally would have tires screeching and cause excessive body roll or understeer.

Continental calls it an entirely new approach to accident-prevention, driver-assistance systems. Not only does it intervene in longitudinal vehicle dynamics like automatic braking systems, it also intervenes in controlling undesired lateral movements, such as when oversteer (rear wheels starting to slide) becomes an out-of-control spin.

The technology could be particularly effective in preventing rear-end and head-on collisions with static obstacles and cross-traffic accidents, the supplier says.

Emergency steer assist is the perfect complement to Continental’s emergency brake-assist system, which will engage the brakes automatically if sensors detect a collision is imminent, says Peter Laier, vice president of the supplier’s chassis components business unit.

“If the driver of a vehicle traveling at high speed has gone beyond the last possible point where braking would have an effect, it may still be possible to avoid an accident through steering or taking evasive action,” he says.

Studies show this is especially true if the road surface is slippery, Laier says.

However, Continental officials say it likely will be one full product cycle before the steering system could reach volume production, because it requires a number of sensors and cameras not included on many vehicles – but eventually will be.

Continental is coming in late to the steering market behind rival TRW, a long-time player in the segment. Bosch, another braking and electronics specialist, also has a steering joint venture with ZF Friedrichshafen AG.

Among the building blocks for the new technology are ESC and electrically assisted power steering, which rapidly is replacing hydraulic and electro-hydraulic power steering throughout the world.

Continental’s steering system also requires forward-looking radar used in smart cruise-control systems and active electronic suspension controls.

For optimum functionality, emergency steer assist also requires rear-wheel steering, which is available only in a few vehicles, such as the BMW 7-Series and 5-Series.

Even so, rear-wheel steering is expected to become more common as the cost of electronic components and fusing various sensor functions comes down.

The effect of all these different sensors and technologies working together – tested recently on Continental’s test track outside Frankfurt, is little short of amazing. They give the average driver, or lowly automotive journalist, the ability to abruptly swerve around an obstacle with the reflexes and confidence of a professional driver.

The demonstration makes clear what ADAS technologies promise is not to take away the responsibility of driving, but to make everyone behind the wheel far better drivers than they ever could be on their own, sometimes with almost superhuman senses and reflexes.

And who would not be willing to pay a little extra for that?

dwinter@wardsauto.com