Early estimates released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed what many saw coming: traffic fatalities rose in 2021 compared with 2020.
The surprise isn’t the increase, but how large it is: 10.5%, which is the biggest year-over-year jump ever. The 42,915 projected deaths are the highest total since 2005, federal officials noted. The country saw 38,842 deaths in 2020, according to NHTSA.
The jump reflects a trend as 2020’s numbers were 7.2% higher than 2019 despite the numerous lockdowns related to the COVID pandemic.
“We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement. “With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways.”
Driving more, caring less?
As the pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions lifted throughout 2021, the number of people on the roads increased. Not only that, but those people were also driving further or more. Preliminary data reported by the Federal Highway Administration show that vehicle miles traveled in 2021 increased by about 325 billion miles, or about 11.2%, as compared to 2020.
Safety advocates were quick to point to high-risk driving behaviors — many of which began in 2020 when the traffic levels were much lower due to COVID restrictions — as the culprit for the jump.
“Reckless driving, including speeding, impairment and lack of seat belt use, has been a major factor behind fatality increases that began during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for highway and Auto Safety, in a statement.
“Advocates had strong concerns that these behaviors would continue as traffic volumes increased from peak pandemic lows. These fears appear to be coming to fruition.”
The organization called for improving the performance standards, including establishing a minimum, for advanced driver assistance systems. It also wants “proven” crash avoidance tech, like such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind spot detection “as required in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.”
Breaking down the data
When taking a closer look at the statistics, 44 U.S. states saw increases in deaths. However, there was one area of decline — however slight — as the the fatality rate for 2021 was 1.33 fatalities per 100 million VMT, marginally down from 1.34 fatalities in 2020.
Additionally, the traffic fatalities in the following categories showed relatively large increases in 2021, as compared to 2020:
- Fatalities in multi-vehicle crashes up 16%
- Fatalities on urban roads up 16%
- Fatalities among drivers 65 and older up 14%
- Pedestrian fatalities up 13%
- Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck up 13%
- Daytime fatalities up 11%
- Motorcyclist fatalities up 9%
- Bicyclist fatalities up 5%
- Fatalities in speeding-related crashes up 5%
- Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes up 5%
“This crisis on our roads is urgent and preventable,” said Steven Cliff, Ph.D., NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator. “We will redouble our safety efforts, and we need everyone — state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers — to join us. All of our lives depend on it.”
Some of that comes in the form of campaigns designed to reinforce the use of safety-oriented behavors, such as the agency’s “Click It or Ticket” effort that began last week. Additionally, the agency is investing $740 million in the 402 State and Community Grant Program, Section 405 National Priority Safety Program and Section 1906 Racial Profiling Data Collection Grants.
States are encouraged to use the funding to implement programs to address gaps and opportunities identified during the technical assistance effort, expand partnerships, and focus on risky driving as well as safety concerns among vulnerable road users and overrepresented populations.