The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has kept many people at home and out of their cars. But despite the shift to remote work for many Americans, motor vehicle deaths skyrocketed. Researchers recently reported that traffic fatalities are at their highest level in 15 years, even as the number of miles driven has fallen across the country.
Sharp Increase in Traffic Fatalities During Pandemic
According to the Los Angeles Times news reports, 38,680 people died in car accidents across the United States in 2020. This is the highest number of traffic deaths recorded nationwide since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The 2020 figures represented a seven-percent increase in fatalities compared to the previous year, according to NHTSA.
What’s especially alarming about the rising number of car crash deaths is that they were recorded despite a sharp drop in the number of miles driven. Early data from the Federal Highway Administration show that the Americans drove 430.2 billion miles in 2020, a 13.2 percent decrease from 2019 levels. However, the massive increase in traffic deaths means the overall fatality rate jumped from 1.11 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2019 to 1.37 deaths per 100 million VMT in 2020.
“This was completely unprecedented,” Ken Kolosh, a researcher at the National Safety Council, told the Los Angeles Times. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
Why Have Car Crash Deaths Increased?
While researchers have not fully identified why car crash deaths have increased so dramatically across the country, some suggest that it is due to riskier driving behavior. “I fear we’ve adopted some really unsafe driving habits, and they’re going to persist,” Kolosh said. “Our roads are less safe than they were pre-pandemic.”
Researchers noticed an increase in several risky driving behaviors that could be behind the surge in traffic deaths, such as:
Impaired driving – One survey of driver behavior during the pandemic found that drivers were seven percent more likely to drink and drive than they were before the pandemic. Drivers who are impaired are at a much higher risk of hurting themselves or others in an accident.
Not wearing seat belts – Researchers also noticed an increase in the number of drivers who failed to wear their seat belts during the pandemic. Unrestrained motorists are much more likely to be ejected in an accident and die from their injuries.
Speeding and aggressive driving – Speed-related accidents also increased during the pandemic. Researchers found that drivers are acting more aggressively and are more likely to tailgate, cut other drivers off, or fail to yield.
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