2019 U.S. Traffic Deaths Lowest Since 2014, but 2020 Numbers Aren’t Looking Good

2019 U.S. Traffic Deaths Lowest Since 2014, but 2020 Numbers Aren’t Looking Good
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers up another reason we need to get rid of COVID-19: reckless driving is up, and causing more deaths.
  • 2019 was the third year in a row with fewer traffic fatalities than the one before, but NHTSA’s preliminary data for 2020 suggests more deaths per miles traveled, even with fewer cars on the road.
  • NHTSA said the reasons include more risky behavior, like an increase in speeding and a lower rate of seatbelt use, as well as a higher likelihood of drugs or alcohol being involved.

    There’s good news and really bad news in a batch of reports released today by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) focusing on motor-vehicle traffic fatalities in 2019 and the first half of 2020. The good news is that, overall, roads were safer in 2019 than 2018, continuing a three-year trend that started in 2017. The really bad news is that, if the agency’s early estimates bear out, U.S. roads were more dangerous in the second quarter of 2020 than they have been in years.

    “2019 was one of the best years for highway safety so far, and we want to get back to where we were as soon as we can,” NHTSA deputy administrator James Owens said as he discussed the results today.

    In hard numbers, 2020 looks pretty good so far compared to 2019. The number of people who have died in motor vehicle traffic crashes was down from 16,988 in 2019 to 16,650 in 2020, a decrease of 2 percent. The trouble with relying on just one number is that those deaths hide the massive societal changes the world went through this spring (and is still going through) with the coronavirus.

    When you factor in an important aspect of that change, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), you actually see that more people died this year, on average, than last year. That’s because VMT was down a dramatic 16.6 percent (or 264.2 billion miles) in the first six months of 2020, which pushed up the fatality rate per 100 million VMT, a metric the NHTSA uses to more accurately compare vehicle and road safety over time. Using this number, the NHTSA discovered that fatalities per 100 million VMT climbed to 1.25 in 2020, up from the 1.06 in 2019, despite the same three-year decrease that the agency saw with fatalities-per-VMT that it did with overall fatalities leading into this year.

    Stay-at-Home Orders Made Things Worse, Not Better

    Things look even worse if you just look at the second quarter, when the COVID-related stay-at-home orders went into effect.

    “As I’m sure you have noticed, our roads emptied out as people began staying at home, but we soon started hearing anecdotes about reckless driving with officers clocking drivers speeding in the triple digits in many cases,” Owens said. “Over the summer, we gathered data from our state partners and, unfortunately, the data confirmed some of the emerging trends we observed back in the spring.”

    Owens said NHTSA projections suggest that the total number of lives lost from traffic crashes in the second quarter of 2020 dropped by 3.3 percent compared to 2019, resulting in 302 fewer deaths overall. But, again, the fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased in Q2, up to 1.42.

    Bad Decisions?

    NHTSA has found a number of reasons for why this is happening, and they all hinge on people making bad decisions during the COVID era.

    “Our preliminary findings suggest that since mid-March, more drivers had alcohol or drugs in their systems,” Owens said. “Other data suggests that many people are driving faster, especially at excessive speeds, and that fewer people involved in crashes appear to have been wearing seatbelts. We have never seen trends like this and we feel an urgency to work with our stakeholders to take action and turn this around as quickly as possible.”

    NHTSA said it will continue to collect data and will publish finalized reports on the numbers later this year and in 2021. Car and Driver will dig into the data that NHTSA released today and will publish more details on the increased fatality trend this weekend.

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