In our ongoing love affair with the open road, one of the most tragic consequences is the fatal accident. From the gruesome scene to informing the next of kin, ask any police officer what it’s like to deal with death on the highways. But when it comes to avoiding or at least surviving those accidents, there is some good news to report.

An auto vehicle driver or a passenger is a terrible thing to waste.

In our ongoing love affair with the open road, one of the most tragic consequences is the fatal accident. From the gruesome scene to informing the next of kin, ask any police officer what it’s like to deal with death on the highways. But when it comes to avoiding or at least surviving those accidents, there is some good news to report.

The National Safety Council says fatalities on U.S. highways dropped to 42,600 in 2006. That’s not the lowest in recent history, but what is important is the decrease in the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles. It’s fallen to 1.42, less than one-third the rate of 35 years ago.

That number means there are more of us than ever and we’re driving more than ever, but we’re dying on the highways less often; truly something to be thankful for.

In 1957, 50 years ago, the government reported that an average of 5.7 people were killed for every 100 million miles driven in the U.S. That’s more than one family wiped out for that amount of collective driving.

For those of you who weren’t around in 1957, here are some of the reasons why the highway fatality rate was four times what it is today:

- Inattention to safety. When Detroit (then nearly all cars were built there) marketed automobiles, automakers almost always bragged about which car had the biggest tailfins or the most powerful engine. Whenever they tried to introduce safety as a feature, it was generally ignored. There were no seat belts, no airbags. Why, dashboards were even made out of metal. Safety simply didn’t sell.

Was it the automakers’ fault? Not really. It was ours. If the motoring public had demanded it, Detroit would have responded. We didn’t, so they didn’t.

- Dangerous highways. Fifty years ago, there were very few controlled-access, divided highways. Auto and truck travel was essentially done on two- or three-lane roads. Every intersection was a potential death trap, and every attempt to pass a vehicle was an occasion to take one’s life into one’s hands. That’s just what happened all too often.

In 1957, the legislation creating the Interstate Highway System was just one year old. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, forever the general that he was, envisioned the national road network primarily as a defense mechanism, an efficient method to transport troops and supplies across the country.

But it turned out to be so much more. Not only did it allow us to travel at higher speeds with fewer stops, driving became a whole lot safer. Fewer of those intersections and safer passing have drastically reduced the opportunities for tragedy on our roads.

Everything has its price. If we truly wanted to minimize the death toll on our highways, we could simply ban driving. Sounds ridiculous, but it’s theoretically possible. No driving would mean no accidents which would mean no fatalities.

It would also mean taking away our freedom of movement and paralyzing our economy, which is built on the free movement of goods and services, which our automotive transportation system allows.

The existence of traffic accidents and fatalities is part of the price we as a society pay for that system. It’s a steep price. But the good news is that safer cars and safer highways are bringing that price down year after year.

So when you’re driving on that interstate highway in your five-star crash test rated vehicle over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s this Thanksgiving, be thankful that you have a better chance than ever to make it there and back alive.

Dick Lucinski is the managing editor of the Niagara Gazette. His columns appear on Wednesdays and Saturdays.