Story at a glance
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said drivers appeared to take more risks as roads were less crowded during the pandemic.
- Nearly 39,000 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, compared to the 36,096 deaths in 2019.
- The increase was driven by impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.
Traffic deaths in the U.S. increased by more than 7 percent last year despite fewer people driving on the road due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Preliminary estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show about 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, compared to the 36,096 deaths in 2019.
The 2020 figure is the largest projected number of traffic deaths of any year since 2007. The estimated increase came even though the number of miles traveled by vehicle fell by more than 13 percent, or 430.2 billion miles, from 2019.
The NHTSA said drivers appeared to take more risks as roads were less crowded.
“NHTSA’s research suggests that throughout the national public health emergency and associated lockdowns, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly, and that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” the agency said in the release.
Average speeds also increased throughout the year, and extreme speeds became more common while fewer people used seat belts.
The number of people killed in passenger vehicles increased by 5 percent from 2019, motorcyclist deaths rose by 9 percent and bicyclist deaths were up by 5 percent. Pedestrian deaths remained flat at 6,205, according to the preliminary findings.
There were some areas where traffic deaths decreased in 2020. Deaths in crashes involving large commercial and noncommercial trucks are expected to fall by 2 percent, while deaths among people aged 65 and older will fall about 9 percent.
“Safety is the top priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Loss of life is unacceptable on our nation’s roadways and everyone has a role to play in ensuring that they are safe. We intend to use all available tools to reverse these trends and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries,” Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Acting Administrator, said in the release.
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