NHTSA: 2020 Traffic Fatalities Rose While Americans Drove Less

2022 Ford Maverick.
NHTSA SaferCar App. Credit: NHTSA.

More proof that the pandemic did not make things safer on U.S. roads despite the fact far fewer people were on the roads. New preliminary stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows 2020 had the most traffic-related deaths since 2007.

The NHTSA projects an estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, a 7.2 percent increase over the 36,096 fatalities reported in 2019. This includes traffic-related deaths for motor vehicles, motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists, with motorcyclists seeing the largest increase in crash-related deaths.

At the same time, Americans drove less last year due to the pandemic. Preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2020 decreased by about 430.2 billion miles, a decrease of 13.2-percent: The fatality rate for 2020 was 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from 1.11 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2019.

So why were more people killed on the road last year, during a pandemic, than the year before? The NHTSA’s analysis shows that the main behaviors behind the increase include impaired driving, not wearing their seat belt and speeding. For example, NHTSA says its research shows the average speeds increased throughout the year and examples of extreme speed became more common.

“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,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Acting Administrator. “The President’s American Jobs Plan would provide an additional $19 billion in vital funding to improve road safety for all users, including people walking and biking. It will increase funding for existing safety programs and allow for the creation of new ones, with a goal of saving lives.”

NHTSA’s projections show significant increases in fatalities during the third and fourth quarters of 2020 as compared to the corresponding quarters of 2019. NHTSA says it will continue to carefully analyze the data to understand what’s going on, and how the risks to vulnerable road users might have changed during 2020 and the contributing factors for the increase.

Preliminary finding show that 2020 traffic fatalities rose in most major categories over 2019:

  • Passenger vehicle occupants (23,395, up 5%)
  • Pedestrians (6,205, flat from 2019)
  • Motorcyclists (5,015, up 9%)
  • Pedalcyclists (people on bikes) (846, up 5%)

Crash factors and demographics reviewed by NHTSA that showed the largest increases in 2020 as compared to 2019 included:

  • non-Hispanic Black people (up 23%);
  • occupant ejection (up 20%);
  • unrestrained occupants of passenger vehicles (up 15%);
  • on urban interstates (up 15%);
  • on urban local/collector roads (up 12%);
  • in speeding-related crashes (up 11%);
  • on rural local/collector roads (up 11%);
  • during nighttime (up 11%);
  • during the weekend (up 9%);
  • in rollover crashes (up 9%);
  • in single-vehicle crashes (up 9%) and;
  • in police-reported alcohol involvement crashes (up 9%).

There are a few categories that are projected to have decreases in fatalities in 2020. Fatalities in crashes involving a large truck (commercial or non-commercial use) are projected to decline marginally (down 2%).

Fatalities among older persons (65+ years of age) are projected to decline by about 9 percent.

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