AP Photo / Clyde Mueller, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Motorists make their way along an icy Old Las Vegas Highway in Santa Fe, N.M., on Monday.
The number of people who died in vehicle crashes on U.S. highways hit a 62-year low in 2011, according to government data released Monday.
There were 32,367 highway deaths last year — the lowest level since 1949 and a 26 percent decline since 2005, according to an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"The latest numbers show how the tireless work of our safety agencies and partners, coupled with significant advances in technology and continued public education, can really make a difference on our roadways," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
"The long term trend is that fatality rates are falling, mainly because of safer vehicles," Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said in a statement. "People are walking away from crashes today that they wouldn't have survived 20 years ago."
The institute gave its "top safety pick" award to a whopping 66 vehicles for 2011. The award recognized automobiles that best protect motorists in front, side, rollover and rear crashes.
Increasingly, car manufacturers offer crash-avoidance features like electronic stability control. However this year, some luxury carmakers were under criticism for faring poorly in new crash tests.
While 2011's overall fatality numbers were the lowest in six decades, NHTSA noted that the number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes went up by nearly 2 percent. Additionally, there was a 20-percent jump in fatalities among large truck occupants and a 2.1 percent increase among motorcycle riders.
Overall, the 2011 figures were positive, but early figures for 2012 aren't as promising. Cathy Chase, senior director for governmental affairs at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, noted that crash data for the first half of the year showed the largest percentage increase in traffic fatalities since 1975.
"We were startled by the 9 percent increase," she told NBC News.
In a statement, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland stressed vigilance: "Even as we celebrate the progress we've made in recent years, we must remain focused on addressing the safety issues that are continuing to claim more than 30,000 lives each year."
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