Great Britain’s roads were quieter and safer last year. Figures just released by the Department for Transport showed that 12% fewer people died on the roads during 2009 than in the year before. Road accidents killed 2222 compared with 2538 deaths during 2008. In all, 26,096 were killed or badly hurt in crashes – that’s 6% fewer than a year earlier. Of these total, 1059 who died were drivers or passengers in cars, a figure 16% lower. The number of seriously injured also fell by 6% to 10,053.

Since the mid-1990s all but the cheapest cars have been equipped with at least a drivers’ airbag as standard and since 1997 the results of independent crash safety tests have been published for top-selling models. Both changes have improved crash survival rates considerably. The number of road deaths has fallen steadily since the 1960s, although there are many, many more cars on the road.

As a nation we drove 313.2 billion miles during 2009, a fall of 3 billion miles, meaning that the roads actually became less congested. That came as a surprise because the roads have become steadily busier – they were 6.2% quieter 10 years ago. We were more law-abiding, too. In 1999, two-thirds of drivers regularly broke the 30mph limit but last year fewer than half did.

However pressure groups including Brake and the Institute of Advanced Motorists have called for local councils to resist pressure to slash road safety spending despite cuts made in this week’s Emergency Budget.