TRAVERSE CITY, MI – U.S. traffic fatalities have decreased since the peak years of the 1970s. But with the tally now running at about 33,000 a year, “there still are way too many,” says an associate administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

Citing crash-frequency averages, “by the time I’m done talking, three people will have died on the nation’s roads,” Nat Beuse says during a presentation at the 2014 CAR Management Briefing Seminars. “There’s a lot of work left to do.”

Yet he speaks of dramatic safety improvements, many involving crash warning and avoidance systems.

Those are considered precursors to self-driving cars of the future. More immediately, they show “the most potential for bringing down crash numbers,” Beuse says.

“Technology can really play a role here,” he says of advanced safety systems, particularly ones that automatically activate to prevent or mitigate a crash when a driver fails to do so.

“Automated emergency braking has significant potential,” Beuse says. “It makes sense because there are a lot of rear-impact collisions in which a driver didn’t brake enough or at all.”

NHTSA closely watches as the auto industry moves toward fully automated cars. The federal agency also is weighing the human element of driving, and whether cars should assume more control.

“The human factor is a big one,” Beuse says. “You don’t have to go around too much to see that people are doing some interesting things behind the wheel without automated driving.”

Opinions differ on exactly when self-driving cars will take to the roadways en masse and how it all will work out. Regardless, Beuse says more and more car buyers want the safety features today’s semi-autonomous technology offers.

“Consumer awareness and demand for it is seen in dealership showrooms,” he says of systems that use sensors, cameras and radar to keep motorists out of harm’s way.                

In addition to the loss of life, traffic fatalities cost billions of dollars a year, Beuse says. “It’s not something that’s talked about a lot, but it’s a huge toll on society.”

Although he credits automakers with developing more safety features, he views it as the government’s role “to push things to move faster.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com