I never thought I'd be writing this, because I am decidedly not a car person. I moved to NYC and got rid of my car seven years ago because I hate to drive. And a few months ago my wife had her foot run over by a van! Nevertheless, I just got around to reading Superfreakonomics (which was a great read, and, not surprisingly, is being flagged by spellcheck here), and it has some nuggets of positive news about driving.
Nearly 40,000 people died in U.S. traffic accidents in 1950, it says. That's roughly the same number as today, but that masks the good news, which is that we drive a lot more today and there are a lot more cars on the road. So the rate has dropped: the rate of death per mile driven was five times higher in 1950 than it is today.
Seat belts are a huge part of that, and the book describes how Robert McNamara (yes, that Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense one) was the person at Ford who pushed for them originally. Prior to that, they were used in airplanes, but no one had thought to put them in cars. However, turns out it's much easier to install seat belts than it is to get people to wear them, and for decades, they didn't. But the rate of people wearing their seat belts in the U.S. has risen from 11% in the 1970s to 21% in the mid-1980s, 61% in the mid 1990s, and over 80% today. It's estimated that seat belts reduce the risk of death in an accident by as much as 70%; since 1975 they have saved about 250,000 lives. Each seat belt costs about $25 to put in a car, making them one of the most cost-effective lifesaving devices ever invented.
PS> Btw, if we go back even farther in time, transportation was even more dangerous. In 1900, for example, horse accidents killed 200 New Yorkers, 1 in every 17,000 residents. And that's not taking into consideration diseases spread by widespread horse dung (200,000 horses in NYC meant 5 million pounds of horse manure a day.) In 2007, 274 New Yorkers died in car accidents, but with more people that works out to only 1 in every 30,000 residents.