Despite a spate of tragic accidents over Christmas, police statistics show that the 2006 death toll on Ulster roads could turn out to be the lowest since 1952. Last year there were 134 deaths, a record low, but this year, so far, there have been only 126.
This will be no consolation for the families grieving over the latest casualties - especially the McGuigan family of Lenadoon, who lost a father and eight-year-old daughter, with two younger daughters seriously injured, in a crash near Crumlin. But ever since the peak year of 2000, when 163 died in 14,500 accidents, there has been a steady decline in the death toll, even though the number of vehicles on the roads increases annually.
Comparing the figures for the first 11 months of 2006 with last year, there is an uncanny similarity. This year, there were 7,327 casualties - including 113 deaths - while in 2005 there were 7,369 and 114 deaths. While accidents usually increase during the festive season, fewer have been fatal this year.
The statisticians will be trying to decide what factors have played a part in this improvement, but self-preservation must come top of the list. There is far more awareness, nowadays, of the dangers of speeding or drunk driving, and the likelihood of being caught - and heavily penalised - is greater than it was.
Cars, of course, are safer, and this may partly explain why in 2000-1 there were 8,300 accidents causing death or injury, as compared with only 5,000 last year. Speeding was the second principal factor in 2005, after inattention, causing the highest number of deaths (34) and serious injuries (231). Alcohol or drugs came fourth on the list of causes, but was responsible for the second highest number of deaths.
While some would argue that there is a poor return for the money spent on advertising road safety, there is no doubt that it has raised awareness of the dangers - even if the shock value diminishes with repetition. Who can forget the havoc caused in a crash by passengers not wearing a seat belt?
While the downward trend is encouraging, there can be no let-up in the campaign against dangerous driving, or the pressure on the courts to impose severer penalties. Traffic congestion is increasing, made worse by the construction work on the West Link, and there is a temptation to make up time on any open road.
Speed cameras will never be popular, but they are a legitimate means of keeping drivers' eyes on their speedometer. In the long term, easily the best way of improving safety is to invest in more dual carriageways, as the Republic is doing.