U.S. Traffic Fatalities Reach 16-Year High: Report

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Officer Daniel Arteaga inspects a car crash in Chelsea, Massachusetts on May 1, 2021.

Officer Daniel Arteaga inspects a car crash in Chelsea, Massachusetts on May 1, 2021.
Image: Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP (Getty Images)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released preliminary traffic fatality data for 2021 on Tuesday, and the numbers are not looking good: Nearly 43,000 Americans were killed in traffic crashes last year. That’s a staggering 10.5-percent rise in fatalities over a single year — the swiftest increase in driving-related deaths NHTSA has ever recorded in its 47 years of analyzing U.S. traffic fatalities.

Analysts told ABC that the rise is likely due to drivers engaging in risky behavior — a trend that began when traffic dropped nearly to zero during COVID lockdowns — coupled with pent-up desire for road trips now that things are opening up. Americans drove 11.2 percent more miles in 2021 compared to 2020, which contributed to the increase in deaths:

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said America faces a crisis on its roads. The safety administration urged state and local governments, drivers and safety advocates to join in an effort to reverse the rising death trend.

“Our nation has taken a dangerous and deadly step backwards in traffic safety and impaired driving,” said MADD National President Alex Otte, who urged strong public-private efforts akin to the seatbelt and airbag public safety campaigns of the 1990s to stem reckless driving. “More families and more communities are feeling the crushing magnitude of this crisis on our roads.”

Preliminary figures released Tuesday by the agency show that 42,915 people died in traffic crashes last year, up from 38,824 in 2020. Final figures will be released in the fall.

NHTSA estimates deaths rose in almost every category of crash, though official figures will not be available until this fall.

Crashes occurring during out-of-state travel jumped 15%, compared to 2020, many of them on rural interstate roads or access roads off city highways. Fatalities in urban areas and deaths in multi-vehicle crashes each rose 16%. Pedestrian deaths were up 13%.

By age, fatalities among drivers 65 and older rose 14%, reversing a declining trend seen among them in 2020. Deaths also surged among middle-aged drivers, led by those 35-to-44, which rose 15%. Kids under age 16 saw traffic fatalities increase 6%.

By vehicle, fatalities involving at least one big truck were up 13%, while motorcycle deaths were up 9% and deaths of bicyclists rose 5%. Fatalities involving speeding drivers and deaths in alcohol-related crashes each were up 5%.

You’d think deaths would have declined due to lockdowns, but that’s not necessarily the case. Before 2020, traffic deaths had fallen for three years in a row in the U.S. The spike in deaths actually began during COVID lockdowns. A study from AAA suggests that safer categories of drivers, such as older people and women, stayed home, allowing riskier, younger drivers plenty of space to run wild. NHTSA also found that behavioral factors in fatal crashes, like driving without a seatbelt, drunk driving and speeding, also increased during lockdowns.

The Transportation Department has plans to address the deaths, but so far they’re rather vague, and include things like maybe introducing passive breathalyzers in vehicles and possibly paying states to redesign some roads to reduce traffic speeds. Not exactly policies that move with lighting quickness to cut down on the carnage on our road.

Nowhere in NHTSA’s statement was another factor in crash fatalities: vehicle weight and size. As heavier and larger EVs and SUVs make up more of America’s fleet, deaths will likely only increase.

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