The rise in U.S. road deaths after Covid-19 hit was historic, but it was especially concentrated among certain groups of people, new federal data show.
Men, people under 65, road users in urban areas and people out at night saw higher numbers of traffic fatalities than the rest of the population, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nationally, the number of people who died on the roadways increased 6.8% between 2019 and 2020. That brought the total count of road deaths during 2020 to 38,824. That was the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2007.
Deaths of motorists, as well as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are included in the figures. The statistics provide a window into an unusual period—the first year of the pandemic—a time when people were driving less, but when there was also a rise in crashes involving risky behavior on the roads, like speeding and drunk driving.
The report is the latest to document a troubling rise in deadly crashes on the nation’s roads in recent years. In response, safety advocates renewed calls for changes to state laws, and urged Congress to pass budget legislation that would allow for safety-oriented programs funded under the recently passed infrastructure law to be implemented.
“During the beginning stages of the pandemic, our roadways became reckless racetracks,” Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety wrote in a statement. The group is pushing for state officials to adopt 16 laws that it says could improve road safety. No state has passed all of them.
“Each of the 38,824 persons killed leaves tremendous voids in the lives of their loved ones, their children, parents, spouses, friends and communities. There is no excuse for inaction or delay by our federal and state leaders,” Chase added.
The changes in the fatality statistics varied significantly by state. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia saw increases in road deaths of 10% or more between 2019 and 2020. Only seven states and Puerto Rico saw decreases.
Dip In Driving, Then a Spike in Deadly Crashes
The new federal data illustrates how people generally traveled less in the first three months that the pandemic took hold in the United States, from March until May 2020. Road deaths actually declined in those three months.
The relative calm during the spring makes the high numbers of traffic deaths in the summer and beyond even more striking.
The number of miles Americans drove declined by 11% between 2019 and 2020. But the fatality rate for every mile driven went in the opposite direction, increasing by 21%. That one-year change is the highest on record.
Not surprisingly, the rise in traffic deaths corresponded with a marked increase in the risky behaviors that safety experts have long blamed for dangerous driving: not wearing seatbelts, driving while intoxicated and driving too fast.
The country saw a 14% increase in alcohol-related crashes, a 17% jump in speeding-related crashes and a 21% increase in passengers ejected from their vehicles (an indication that they were not wearing seat belts).
The increases were especially pronounced in crashes involving more than one of those risk factors. The number of people who died in crashes where both alcohol and speeding were a factor, for example, increased by 23%. The number of deaths in crashes where both of those elements and the lack of seat belts played a role, meanwhile, increased 21%.
The first year of the pandemic also set another grim milestone: the proportion of people killed in traffic crashes who were not in a vehicle – a group that includes pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycles – rose from a low of 20% in 1996 to a new high of 34% in 2020.
The federal data also highlighted other disparities. For example:
Calls for State and Federal Action
Safety advocates are pushing for state and federal officials to act with more urgency in light of the new details about the 2020 upswing in traffic deaths.
“This alarming new report illustrates the urgency for Congress to finalize the [current federal] budget to fully fund the first year of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and provide direly needed resources to states and communities for roadway safety,” the Governors Highway Safety Association wrote in a statement.
Many new provisions of the infrastructure law that President Biden championed are now being held up because of unrelated funding fights in Congress.
The group also called on NHTSA and other federal transportation agencies to speed up their roll out of new safety rules that were tied to the infrastructure package.
At the state level, lawmakers in 2020 debated policies that could affect road safety, although most legislators wrapped up business before the surge in road deaths began.
For example, 17 states considered legislation dealing with seat belts that year, but “few were enacted,” with New York being a notable exception, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nine states changed policies regarding speed limits, although that included both policies to let local governments lower speed limits on their streets and the state raising speed limits on highways.
Lawmakers were more active on the issue of drunk driving, with 33 states changing their policies in 2020. Those changes included requiring ignition interlock devices for people convicted of drunk driving, making it easier for police to test motorists for intoxication, as well as efforts to allow expungement of DUI convictions.
Four states—Indiana, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin—created new penalties or enhanced penalties for DUI offenses, according to NCSL.