There's some good news: U.S. traffic fatalities fell 9.7 percent in 2009 to 33,808, the lowest number since 1950. In 2008, an estimated 37,423 people died on the highways, a decline of 9.3 percent from the previous year.
But dramatic declines in traffic fatalities in the U.S. over the last several years are likely due to a sour economy in which people drive less, rather than lasting changes in behavior, the report suggests. As the economy improves, researchers said, fatalities are likely to rebound.
"The experience of the past three years is not grounds for concluding that sustainable progress has been made on traffic safety," the report said.
In the 1970s, the U.S. fatality rate was the lowest in the world. But because safety efforts have improved more slowly in the United States than elsewhere, most high-income countries have now matched or gone below the U.S. rate, said the report by the Transportation Research Board.
Countries with comparable living standards where fatality rates per mile of travel were substantially higher than in the United States 15 years ago are now below the U.S. rate, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France and the United Kingdom.
"The United States can no longer claim to rank highly in road safety by world standards," the report said.
From 1995 to 2009, fatalities dropped 52 percent in France, 38 percent in the United Kingdom, 25 percent in Australia, and 50 percent in 15 high-income countries for which long-term fatality and traffic data are available, the report said. But they dropped only 19 percent in the U.S.
The dramatic declines in fatalities in other nations have been achieved in part through the kinds of programs that have sometimes generated opposition in the U.S: speed cameras and speed measuring devices, sobriety checkpoints and mandatory motorcycle helmets, for example.
If such programs were widely adopted in the U.S., it's probable that thousands of lives could be saved each year, the report said.
Researchers estimated that nationwide, sustained and frequent use of checkpoints to detect drunk drivers could save 1,500 to 3,000 lives annually. Systematic speed control programs applied nationwide could save another 1,000 to 2,000 lives, the report said.
If every state required all motorcyclists wear helmets, about 450 deaths a year could be avoided, the report said. Increasing the rate of seat belt use just 5 percent -- from the present 85 percent to 90 percent -- would save about 1,200 lives.
"Where is the public outcry against these preventable deaths?" said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman.
"Americans should strive for zero fatalities on the road. We should be leading, rather than following the international community when it comes to roadway design and safety measures," Hersman said. "But it is a sad fact that the U.S. is in their rear view mirror and falling further behind the rest of the world when it comes to highway safety."
Clinton Oster, an environment and public policy professor at the University of Indiana-Bloomington and chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said there was no "silver bullet" program that stood out.
Rather, transportation safety authorities in other countries that have been successful at reducing fatalities by taking a different overall approach, with an emphasis on demonstrating and documenting programs that work and then aggressively making their case for those programs with political leaders and the public, he said.
"I think we need to be much more systematic in developing clear goals, measuring results and making that information public," Oster said. Other countries "work very hard to demonstrate these techniques actually do save lives."