We are a society built on wheels, so it isn't surprising that vehicle crashes each year take a heavy toll on us, but data released last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show just how important it is to exercise caution every time we get behind the wheel.

The agency calculates the economic and societal harm from vehicle crashes about every 10 years, according to an Associated Press report. Among the findings from the latest survey of data, which included car and truck crashes in 2010, 32,999 people died, 3.9 million people were injured and 24 million vehicles were damaged. The total economic cost to society was $277 billion, or about $900 for every person living in the U.S. that year, according to the AP.

Many of the accidents, however, could have been prevented or, at least, the injuries less severe had people exercised proper care. Among the findings reported by the AP: Alcohol-related driving accounted for $199 billion, or 23 percent; crashes involving a speeding vehicle accounted for $210 billion, or 24 percent; distracted driving accounted for $129 billion, or 15 percent; preventable fatalities and injuries attributable to occupants who weren't wearing their seatbelts accounted for $72 billion, or 8 percent.

In 2010 alone, the AP report says, more than 3,350 people were killed and 54,300 were seriously injured unnecessarily because they failed to wear their seat belts.

We depend on our vehicles to get us to and from work, the store, the doctor's and any number of daily chores. In Carroll, there is more opportunity for accidents because such a large percentage of our population commutes outside the county for work. In addition, the rural nature of Carroll means that, for many residents, having an auto is a necessity.

The report illustrates that, despite safety improvements that have helped drastically reduce fatalities and injuries, ultimately it comes down to drivers making the right decisions and staying alert when they get behind the wheel.