Last Year Had a Massive Spike in Driver Deaths Despite Less Driving Overall

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During the pandemic, we saw a significant dip in overall traffic. You might have expected a few benefits that came with that, such as decreased emissions, fewer car accidents, and cheaper car insurance.
While cities did become quieter and less polluted during the pandemic, the number of fatalities from car accidents increased. Here’s more information about why vehicle deaths increased during the pandemic and what traffic experts think about the data.
Police car parked and an officer directing traffic after an accident
2020 saw a big increase in accidents even though fewer people were driving.
42,060 people died on U.S. roads in 2020, as reported by Bloomberg. That’s an increase of 8% from 2019 even though there was a decrease in vehicle miles traveled by 13%. This is based on data compiled and tracked by the National Safety Council (NSC), an advocacy group.
The 8% increase in vehicle deaths is the largest year-over-year jump since the NSC started tracking the data 96 years ago. Only nine states saw a drop in vehicular deaths including Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
The District of Columbia, South Dakota, and Vermont had the biggest increase in car-related deaths at over 30% for each state.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for increased vehicle deaths. But it seems like the most common causes for deadly car crashes are still the main culprit, especially speeding.
Inrix, a traffic analytics firm, found that with emptier roads, people were driving nearly 35% faster than in 2019, as reported by Bloomberg. Inrix looks at data on urban areas, so some of the numbers could result from local conditions. The city with the highest per-mile vehicle speed was Detroit, which saw an increase of about 60% in 2020 compared to 2019.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) also pointed out that more people were engaging in risky driving behavior. There was an increase in arrests for reckless driving in 2020. Additionally, a larger percentage of crash victims tested positive for drugs or alcohol and fewer of them were wearing seatbelts than in prior years.
This is worrying data to traffic safety experts. They’re concerned that drivers have become too comfortable with risky driving, and it may take some time to adjust back to normal traffic levels.
NSC and the Road to Zero Coalition released guidance in 2018 on life-saving measures that would help reduce vehicle deaths. This includes lowering speed limits, using automated enforcement, and transportation infrastructure improvements. Some states like California and Oregon have worked to implement initiatives to crack down on speeding.
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