Easy to miss in news of wars, natural disasters and budget crises in countries around the world was an announcement from the National Highway Transportation Administration that deaths from car, truck and motorcycle accidents reached an all-time low during 2010. The 3 percent year-to-year decrease in fatal traffic crashes to 32, 788 was the fewest recorded since statistic-keeping began in 1949.

USA Today quoted U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as pleased about fewer crashes ending in deaths but promising to work to reduce the number even further:

Last year’s drop in traffic fatalities is welcome news, and it proves that we can make a difference. Still, too many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day. We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first.

Virginia lawmaker, state police, local law enforcement officials and even drivers have been doing their parts to make driving in the Commonwealth safer. Bans on texting while driving were enacted here in 2009, and Virginia has required seat belts for drivers and passengers, as well as child safety seats in cars and trucks for children younger than 8 years of age, for many years.

Recent changes in traffic patterns have also benefited Hampton Roads motorists looking to make it home, run errands and drive to work without getting involved in accidents. An analysis of road usage in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Hampton and Newport News since 2006 showed that fewer cars took to the region’s roads and highways each year. The time spent driving actually increased, though, as congestion at choke points such as the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel grew.

Interestingly, traffic jams appear to be somewhat of a safety boon for people in cars and trucks. Slower speeds and constant awareness of other vehicles can reduce the number and severity of crashes, even though stop-and-go traffic often does lead to fender benders.

State statistics in the NHTSA report show that Virginia had 739 fatal wrecks during 2010, the fewest since numbers began being collected in 1966.

Virginia DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb echoed LaHood when telling the Virginian-Pilot, “Virginians are making safe driving a priority. And, the coordinated efforts by many state government agencies and their partners to reduce the commonwealth’s traffic fatalities are working.”

I, too, share LaHood’s opinion regarding the trend toward fewer deadly traffic accidents. No one should ever become complacent about the risks they face behind the wheel. Severe injuries and possible death are always seconds away for people who drive while impaired by drugs or alcohol, use handheld electronic devices like cell phones while driving, speed recklessly, ignore stop signals or operate their vehicles unsafely. Everyone should recognize that while 32,788 deaths on U.S. roads and highways is a record low for a full year, that number is nearly equal to the entire population of the town of Blacksburg, Virginia. It’s also more than 32,000 tragic stories of parents, sons, daughters and friends who will never again bring happiness to others’ lives.

So buckle up, drive sober, keep your eyes on the road and obey traffic laws. The old slogan is as true today as ever: Arrive Alive.