In many ways 2009 was a difficult year, capping an often dreary decade some have dubbed the "zeroes."

Despite the headwinds, a number of societal indicators were going in the right direction as the decade ended. Statistically speaking, the sharp drop in homicides in both Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2009 meant our streets were safer. And new data now indicates our roads were safer, too, in part because of smart public policy decisions.

Need proof? Just look at the recently released preliminary tally of traffic fatalities on state roads in 2009, which is estimated at 403. While still far too many, that's 52 fewer fatalities than in 2008, and well down from the decade's peak of 657 in 2002.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) estimates the 2009 death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled at 0.75, which not only would be the lowest ever, but is among the lowest in the nation. The rate'a dramatic decline from 5.52 in 1966 reflects the revolution in automobile safety, driver behavior and enforcement efforts.

There's also been some especially strong legislation approved in St. Paul. Although the partisan divide has made it difficult to address many issues at the Capitol, on matters of life and death key state stakeholders came together to pass crucial legislation. "You have to give the governor and the Legislature real credit over the last number of years for their ability to work together on traffic safety issues," said DPS Commissioner Michael Campion. "We have passed what is clearly the most effective traffic safety legislation that we have in decades."

Among the breakthroughs last year was a primary seat belt law, which makes not buckling up a primary offense, as opposed to one that was only enforced when a driver was stopped for another violation. Seat belt compliance is at a record 90 percent, and there's no reason the state can't eventually reach the national high of around 95 percent.

"Click it or ticket" was "kind of a hammer for some people, primarily young males who think they're invincible like we all did at one time," Campion added. Other recent legislative efforts included booster-seat legislation and a lower blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving to match the national norm.

No doubt the economy has played a role, too. With more people out of work, fewer are driving. And some motorists have slowed down to conserve fuel, which increases road safety.

State officials aren't satisfied, however. Their ongoing vigilance is needed, especially in light of how distracting gadgets are becoming more common in cars.

"I think this is a huge problem," said Max Donath, the director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute at the University of Minnesota. "These new technologies are going to cause more distractions."

And it's about to get worse. The keynote speaker at the recent Consumer Electronic Show wasn't from BlackBerry or Apple, but Ford CEO Alan Mulally.

No doubt Ford and other auto makers have exciting electronic options planned for new cars. But the blurring of windshield and screen -- from smart phones to dashboard Internet access -- is likely to mean more distracted drivers. Minnesota lawmakers and public safety officials would be well advised to keep their eyes on the roads.