Traffic deaths surged 7% during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, reaching the highest level since 2006 based on the number of miles Americans traveled.
The numbers were up even while factoring out the sharp slump in driving during the pandemic. For all of 2020, 38,680 people died on U.S. roads, an increase of 7.2% compared to 2019, according to formal data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We intend to use all available tools to reverse these trends and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries,” said acting NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement accompanying the highway fatality report.
What’s to blame?
Experts point to a variety of factors that contributed to the surge in fatalities among motorists and passengers, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. The list included the usual suspects, such as drunk and drugged driving, as well as distracted driving. But speeding was seen as playing an even bigger role than normal.
Authorities across the country reported a significant surge in the speed at which traffic flowed, especially during early months of the lockdown. The California Highway Patrol handed out more than twice as many tickets to those caught driving at triple-digit speeds. Early on, meanwhile, numerous police departments acknowledged a greater reluctance to pull over drivers due to the potential risk of infection that posed to officers.
NHTSA addressed these concerns in an open letter to motorists earlier this year, warning that “fewer Americans drove but those who did took more risks and had more fatal crashes.” The agency stressed, “It’s irresponsible and illegal to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which not only puts your life at risk but the lives of others.”
Deaths rose by all measures
Last year saw the biggest increase in highway fatalities in 13 year, the death total climbing 2,600 over 2019 levels — even though Americans clocked 13% fewer miles because of pandemic lockdowns and a shift to working from home that saw a sharp decline in commuter traffic.
Adjusted to reflect lighter traffic levels, the fatality rate reached 1.37 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, a figure not seen since 2006.
If anything, traffic deaths continued to surge as more Americans got back on the road, however. Traffic deaths rose more than 13% during the second half of 2020, according to NHTSA.
Seeking a solution
The potential impact of speeding could be seen in the fact that many accidents in 2020 were more severe than in past year. In Michigan, for example, fatalities were up 10%, even though the total number of collisions reported by police fell 22 percent.
Those figures may also reflect another disturbing trend authorities saw last year: a decline in the use of seatbelts.
Whatever the reason, “These hazards are distressing, dangerous and deadly,” the non-profit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said in a statement. The group called for U.S. lawmakers and regulators to push for new standards requiring the use of advanced vehicle safety technologies such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind spot detection.