Up until 2010, the number of fatalities in road traffic collisions had never dropped below 100.
The latest statistics from the PSNI show that 21 car drivers, 10 car passengers, nine pedestrians, four motorcyclists, two cyclists and two other road users were killed last year.
But PSNI Superintendent Mark Purdon said that there was still no room for complacency.
"One death is one too many and road safety remains, and will remain, a priority for the police throughout 2013," he said.
"We can take little comfort in the fact that 48 people lost their lives on our roads.
"The pain of these avoidable deaths has touched family, friends and communities right across Northern Ireland and beyond.
Each one of these victims represents a tragic loss for individual families and friends.
Superintendent Mark Purdon, PSNI
The number of road deaths in Northern Ireland peaked in 1972, when 372 people were killed.
While real progress has been made in tackling the underlying issues of speeding, drink-driving and carelessness, Road Safety Minister Alex Attwood is still hoping to keep lowering the figures.
"The next horizon is moving towards a vision of zero fatalities," he said.
"This is some time off - but if we can move from hundreds to dozens of deaths a year, can we not move further?"
The minister added: "A zero ambition would require radical and bold action to deal with those issues and would include measures that I am already working towards."
According to Mr Attwood, new regimes to tackle drink-driving, new approaches to learner driver training, testing and post-test support, and an all-Ireland system for penalty point recognition are all examples of future measures that could be adopted.
"2012 has been an important milestone for road safety in Northern Ireland, but there are still 48 families who have lost a family member over the last 52 weeks," he said.
"I extend sympathy to those families and friends who lost loved ones through road tragedy.
"In a week that has seen the death of a toddler in Dundonald, I know how painful the loss of each person will have been over the last year."
The Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service said it attended over 630 road traffic collisions in 2012.