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The nation's highways will be crowded with holiday travelers this week, and those highways have been getting safer. Traffic fatalities last year were at their lowest level in nearly five decades. Some of that is due to the recession - people are making fewer trips - and some is due to safer cars. Another reason is that engineers have steadily designed better highways.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports on the improvements as part of our look, this week, at road safety.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Over the years, highway design has gotten more sophisticated and also more simple. Straightforward safety improvements, like rumble strips to warn drivers running onto the shoulder, putting caps on the ends of roadside guardrails instead of burying them so cars don't run up on them and vault into the air, and cable guardrails installed on many divided highways to keep cars from crossing medians.

The Michigan Highway Department even came with a catchy radio ad to alert drivers.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Mort) Newsflash: Michigan motorists are safer because of Median Man and his new cable guardrail system. Median Man is at the scene.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Median Man) Thanks, Mort. My strong, high-tension cables help stop vehicles from crossing the median, prevent injuries and save lives.

NAYLOR: Joe Bared is a research engineer at the Federal Highway Administration's research center in Virginia. He's standing in a darkened room next to a small, black Saturn sedan. On the wall is a computer-generated image of a fictional traffic roundabout. The car is a simulator designed to record drivers' responses, in this case to different types of signs.

Mr. JOE BARED (Research Engineer, Federal Highway Administration Research Lab): So, we would like to learn more on how to guide the drivers to be aware of their destination - how to navigate it.

NAYLOR: The simulator is located in Mclean, Virginia. Its next door neighbor is the CIA. Perhaps the only thing the two agencies have in common is the collection of data. Ray Krammes is the lab's technical director. He draws a comparison to the medical profession.

Mr. RAY KRAMMES (Technical Director, Federal Highway Administration Research Lab): We're always learning more about what's really causing a given illness and how effective various medications are.

NAYLOR: Safety advocates say that for all the improvements, the road is still a dangerous place. Gerald Donaldson is senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Mr. GERALD DONALDSON (Senior Research Director, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety): The basic problem with highways is that once you get off the interstate highway system and you get down to some undivided four-lane highways and two-land thruway rural roads, narrow lanes, severe curves.

NAYLOR: Donaldson says a two-lane rural road is six-to-eight times more dangerous than an interstate.

Mr. DONALDSON: The edge of the road littered with roadside hazards - telephone poles, boulders, rocks, trees - and sometimes obsolete barrier systems, which were well intentioned 40 years ago, but it remained unchanged in that interval.

NAYLOR: And there are other dangers for cars. More than 4,000 people were killed in crashes with trucks last year - one out of every nine traffic fatalities. Jacqueline Gillian, also with the safety group, warns that number could increase if the truck industry gets its way. It's lobbying Congress to increase the maximum weight for trucks on federal highways. It's now 80,000 pounds - the industry wants to allow 97,000-pound trucks. Gillian says bigger trucks are more dangerous.

Ms. JACQUELINE GILLIAN (Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety): In fact, in crashes involving - in fatal crashes involving a truck and a car, 98 percent of the fatalities are the occupants of the car. That's not rocket science; that's just pure physics. Big is always going to win.

NAYLOR: The trucking industry doesn't see it that way. It argues that bigger trucks means there won't be as many more needed to haul freight, especially once the economy picks up. Dave Osiecki is vice president for safety at the American Trucking Associations.

Mr. DAVE OSIECKI (Vice President for Safety, American Trucking Associations): Safety will not be harmed. In fact, safety can be improved because you're reducing the exposure of the trucking industry to the motoring public.

NAYLOR: Pedestrians and bikers also want a bigger share of the road. There were more than 4,000 pedestrians killed in traffic crashes last year. David Goldberg of the group Transportation for America says too many roads were designed only with drivers in mind, lacking even sidewalks. But that's starting to change.

Mr. DAVID GOLDBERG (Transportation for America): Many communities, over 100 now, have adopted what's called a complete streets policy; where they basically say, if we're going to build a road or if we're going to retrofit one, we're going to make it a complete one. We're going to have the sidewalks, we're going to accommodate people on bicycle, people who are in wheelchairs, people who are using public transportation. There will be a provision made for everybody, from the motorist on.

NAYLOR: Government officials say they're working to make highways safer for all users, but that individual drivers also need to take responsibility. So, put away those cell phones.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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