The U.S. saw highway deaths rise to their highest level since 2007 despite a significant reduction in the miles Americans drove last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Preliminary data indicates as many as 42,060 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes last year – an 8% increase from 2019. The death rate surged 24% on a per-mile basis – the biggest year-over-year jump since 1924.
“It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits,” said Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “(This data exposes) our lack of an effective roadway safety culture. It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively, and NSC stands ready to assist all stakeholders, including the federal government.”
Deaths rise as driving drops
The numbers are not entirely surprising. Both the NSC and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began recording a spike in fatalities last spring.
This isn’t the first time motor vehicle deaths have risen in recent years. There was a modest surge beginning around the middle of the last decade. By 2017, however, the numbers started trending downward again. In 2019, according to the NSC, about 38,800 people were killed in crashes, a 2% drop from the year before.
What’s significant about the latest numbers is the fact that overall deaths were up despite what the safety group called a “dramatic drop in miles driven.”
The U.S. Federal Highway Authority last week reported that Americans drove a total of 2.83 trillion miles in 2020. That was a 13.2% decrease from the year before. It marked the lowest level of driving by American motorists in two decades.
Higher speeds among contributing factors
There were some positives to the decrease, including an estimated reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 170 million tons, the FHA said. And highway tracking services such as Inrix found a sharp reduction in the number of traffic jams, especially in normally traffic-snarled metro areas like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago.
Ironically, the reduction in traffic caught some of the blame from safety experts for the rise in highway fatalities. Data showed a surge in average driving speeds as roadway traffic volumes declined, starting last spring. According to Inrix, some major urban areas saw traffic levels dip by as much as 75% or more during the pandemic-led lockdowns last spring. Travel has yet to completely rebound, in part, due to the ongoing work-at-home shift.
A variety of factors have been blamed for last year’s surge, including speeding. Experts have also pointed to distracted driving, increased use of alcohol and drugs during the pandemic and other issues.
Deaths rose in all but nine states
While more than 42,000 Americans were believed to have died in crashes last year, another 4.8 million people were seriously injured, said the NSC. The safety group estimated crashes cost the U.S. about $474 billion.
Highway fatalities increased in the majority of American states, the NSC said, with eight up more than 15%. These included: Arkansas (+26%), Connecticut (+22%), District of Columbia (+33%), Georgia (+18%), Mississippi (+19%), Rhode Island (+26%), South Dakota (+33%) and Vermont (+32%).
Only nine states reported drops in highway fatalities. These were: Alaska (-3%), Delaware (-11%), Hawaii (-20%), Idaho (-7%), Maine (-1%), Nebraska (-9%), New Mexico (-4%), North Dakota (-1%) and Wyoming (-13%).