The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a report that said new vehicle designs from 2000-2008 model years helped save 2,000 lives and prevented 1 million occupant injuries in 2008 alone. NHTSA’s report used statistical models to isolate vehicle improvements from human and environmental/road factors.

The report found that the likelihood of escaping a crash uninjured improved from 79% to 82% as a result of the improvement in vehicle designs between 2000 and 2008 model years. NHTSA data shows that traffic fatalities have been declining during the past decade, dropping to 32,885 in 2010, which is the lowest level in six decades, despite Americans driving more miles per year on average.

The report also found that the likelihood of crashing in 100,000 miles of driving decreased from 30% in an 2000-MY car to 25% in an 2008-MY car (when both vehicles were driven “as new”).

Although the report didn’t cite specific structural or technological features of later model-year vehicles, two areas the report found significant improvement including improved rollover protection and side-impact protection. In addition, the safety benefits occurred disproportionately among light trucks and vans, benefiting those vehicles more.

For example, 23% of the 9 million vehicle collisions in 2008 were in side crashes, but 33% of the 700,000 fewer vehicle collisions from model year 2001-2009 improvements would have been in side impacts (i.e. were avoided due to improved vehicle designs).

Next, light trucks and vans accounted for 41% of actual vehicle collisions but also accounted for 44% of the drop in total collisions. The report said that although it found the greatest improvement in safety in protection against rollovers, there wasn’t a disproportionate reduction in rollover rates because they occur rarely.

“We expect this trend to continue as automakers add advanced safety features to their fleets and continue to improve vehicle designs to earn top safety ratings under our newly updated 5-Star crash-test program,” said David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator. “Safer cars, along with safer drivers and roads, are key components in ensuring the annual number of traffic fatalities remains on a downward trajectory.”

You can view the whole report here.