Which brings us back to what a president might say or do about this issue. The short answer is plenty. With all due respect to our libertarian friends, highway safety is an area where concerted governmental action has proven itself effective at saving lives.

Successful government action has ranged from requiring automakers to redesign gasoline tanks and install mirrors, better lights, safety glass, air bags, and seat belts to coercive measures such as vehicle inspections, mandating helmets for motorcyclists and the wearing of those seat belts — as well as assisting in a veritable crusade against drunk driving. Tremendous strides have also been made in improving the design of roads, guardrails, school crossings, bridges, and roundabouts.

These things work. The deadliest year on record in the United States was 1972. That grim year there were 54,589 traffic fatalities, with another 1.25 million injured. Since then there has been a steady decline. In 2011, the number of killed was 32,310, the lowest figure since 1949 — when the population of the country was half what it is today.

So far in 2012, the trend seems to be heading slightly upward again. It’s not clear why.