“Safety Advances Don’t Curb Traffic Deaths” read headlines across the country.

Report after report informed us that despite numerous safety advances, more Americans were killed in traffic accidents in 2005 than any other year since 1990.

Many readers no doubt shook their heads as they read the headline; uttered a few disparaging words about the auto industry’s lack of concern about safety; and then continued their drive to work as they ate breakfast, sent email messages on their Blackberry and thumbed through the sports pages.

It is sad that all the auto industry’s engineering and design horsepower still cannot compensate for that great killer loose on America’s highways: driver stupidity.

Buried in most of the stories on the latest government report on traffic deaths is the fact that 55% of those who died were not wearing seatbelts, even though seatbelt use hit a record high of 82% last year and every state in the union except New Hampshire has laws requiring their use.

For the majority of us who do use our seatbelts and do not drive while intoxicated, the possibility of dying in a car crash is growing increasingly remote thanks to today’s superior body structures, passive and active safety technologies such as airbags and stability control, plus our own common sense.

But a recent landmark study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows the possibility of being involved in at least a minor crash is very real, even for seatbelt-wearing sober drivers.

After tracking 241 motorists for 13 months in vehicles equipped with sensors and video cameras, the study found 80% of all crashes and 65% of near-crashes are caused by driver distraction: dialing a cell phone, swatting a fly or drowsiness from not getting a good night’s sleep.

Drowsiness increases a driver’s crash risk by at least a factor of four, and drowsy driving may be significantly under-reported in police crash investigations, the researchers concluded.

Cell phones were the most common cause of distraction, but they were not nearly as dangerous as reaching for an object rolling around in the back seat, which increased risk by a factor of nine.

“Advanced technology like the next generation of adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection and lane departure warning can help drivers refocus on proper vehicle operation before encountering a potential accident situation,” Derrick Zechmair, Siemens VDO vice president-North American Restraint Systems, Safety Electronics, tells Ward’s.

To quote the great philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Today’s safety technology is saving our lives. Hopefully tomorrow’s technology will save us from ourselves.

dwinter@wardsauto.com