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US traffic deaths spike 8 percent despite coronavirus pandemic

US traffic deaths spike 8 percent despite coronavirus pandemic
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Traffic deaths in the U.S. increased by about 8 percent in 2020 even as coronavirus lockdowns and stay-at-home orders reduced the number of people on the roads, according to a report on vehicle crashes released Thursday. 

The study from the National Safety Council said that a total of 42,060 people died in vehicle crashes in 2020, up from 39,107 in 2019 and the first increase reported by the group in four years. 

The rise in traffic deaths comes even as the nonprofit estimated a more than 13 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled from 3,260 billion in 2019 to 2,830 billion in 2020.

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The National Safety Council, a nonprofit that works to promote driving safety and reduce leading causes of preventable death, also noted that the fatality rate per 100 million miles increased by 24 percent, making it the largest annual percentage increase in the organization’s nearly centurylong history of collecting data. 

The council also recorded approximately 4.8 million injuries serious enough for a medical professional to be consulted in 2020. 

Michael Hanson, director of the Minnesota Public Safety Department’s Office of Traffic Safety, told The Associated Press in response to the new report that the more open roads prompted by the decline in vehicle traffic during the pandemic has led to more reckless driving. 

“It’s kind of terrifying what we're seeing on our roads,” he said. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the amount of risk-taking behavior.”

Hanson added that while traffic is returning to pre-pandemic levels with the increased distribution of vaccines and easing of public health restrictions, reckless driving is still continuing in the new year. 

“The pandemic appears to be taking our eyes off the ball when it comes to traffic safety,” the National Safety Council’s manager of statistics, Ken Kolosh, told the AP.

Preliminary reports on 2020 vehicle crashes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that speed was the predominant cause of collisions. 

Kolosh also told the AP that tests of traffic crash-involved trauma center patients showed an increase in the use of alcohol, marijuana and opioids.