Image: Insurance adjuster assessing damage to car © Echo, Cultura RF, Getty Images

The roads are safer today than ever. For several reasons -- older drivers, better cars, graduated licensing for teens -- fatal accidents in the U.S. have been falling for years. In fact, the government reported this month that highway fatalities had fallen to their lowest level since 1949.

Yet we are totaling far more cars.

In 2000, about 9% of the cars appraised for repairs were judged totaled, says car insurance claims analyst CCC Information Services. In 2010, that number rose to 14%.

We're not having more wrecks. And we're not having worse wrecks.

We're having a recession.

"Totaled" to the average driver means a wreck with a "holy cow" amount of damage. But "totaled" to your car insurance company means simply that repairs to the car don't make financial sense. That decision hinges on the car's value, its age and the repair costs. The Great Recession has done a number on all three.

Why we're buying and insuring older cars

It all started with a recent, astronomical run-up in the price of used cars. In 2008, as the recession took hold, new-car sales plunged. Would-be buyers feared for their jobs and hung on to their old cars. Tighter credit meant many who wanted to take the plunge couldn't. And manufacturers could no longer raise the money needed to underwrite subsidized leases and rebates.

Here's what new-car sales looked like over the past five years, according to Automotive News:

  • 16 million in 2007.
  • 13 million in 2008.
  • 10 million in 2009.
  • 11.6 million in 2010.
  • 12.2 million (estimated) this year.

The auto market is a complicated ecosystem. "About 60% of all new-vehicle sales result in a trade-in," says Susanna Gotsch, the director and industry analyst at CCC Information Services.

Since the sales meltdown, the pool of like-new used cars has shrunk. Prices for those cream puffs have risen, pushing some buyers toward models with a few more miles. Those older cars now are selling at a premium, with sticker shock rippling all the way down to clunkers that can be bought without credit.

Last year alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says, the price of used cars rose 12.7%.

Cars are older, smaller -- but not cheaper to repair

As people keep their old cars longer and feel less inclined to buy new ones, the average age of autos on the road has risen by more than two years, from 8.5 years old in 1995 to 10.7 years old today, says Gotsch.

The cars are smaller as well. With the sudden rise of fuel prices in 2008 (and Cash for Clunkers removing 700,000 gas guzzlers from the roads), smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles gained market share. Today, the roads carry a growing proportion of small vehicles that suffer more extensive damage in a wreck.

The impact of a crash pushes destruction farther back through a small car, involving a larger proportion of the body, says insurance analyst Greg Horn of Mitchell International. "The bottom line is that the smaller the car, the more likely it is to be totaled," says Horn.