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Can a Change in Traffic Patterns Cause a Spike in Fatalities?

— August 3, 2021

Deadly crashes were the highest in 13 years.

Why does the state collect information on automobile accidents? The aim of statistics on the topic of who is involved, the hows, and the whys of accidents is to help decrease their rate and severity, including fatalities.

Crash data not only helps decision-makers understand the character, causes, and outcomes of accidents to better inform them on the way to best design new strategies for improving road safety. But it also provides context for state authorities to mitigate or enhance problems towards their ultimate goal of zero deaths.

However, despite programs that aimed to eliminate traffic deaths as early as possible, 2020 saw a drastic change in traffic patterns, which led to an overall spike in fatalities and new challenges for decision-makers.

Older adults followed stay-at-home orders and curfews, while younger drivers took advantage of empty streets by speeding recklessly. Within the most prominent cities, illegal speed racing at nighttime became increasingly popular as bars and clubs closed. Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that an increased number of traffic participants were using alcohol and drugs while also driving unrestrained. It is not surprising more accidents happened when this was the case.

Early Evaluation of the Number of Deadly Crashes in 2020

In May of 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published the main points on 2020 traffic-related deaths, and they are insightful. In 2020, more people died in car accidents, making it the highest year in fatalities since 2007. Per the agency’s statistics, a whopping percentage of those who were killed traveled unrestrained.

Side view of front end of vehicle after crash and fire; image by Jan2575, via
Image by Jan2575, via

The agency’s estimative study on 2020 data informs that although the year was crammed with travel restrictions because of social distancing and lockdowns, during this time:

  • 38,680 people lost their lives from road traffic collisions on U.S. highways
  • The number of lost lives was about 7.2% more than 2019’s 36,096 deaths
  • The vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2020 went down by 13.2% compared to 2019
  • There was a rise from 1.11 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2019 to 1.37 deaths for an equivalent VMT in 2020

If the agency’s evaluation is accurate, the death rate reached its highest peak within the last 13 years. Also, the number of fatalities may be higher within the final two quarters of 2020 than within the last two quarters of 2019. Therefore, generally, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled altogether in the quarters of 2020 would be much higher than in 2019.

According to data generated from small-scale research published in spring by the National Safety Council, during 2020, automobile crashes injured an estimated 4.7 million people severely enough for them to consult a medical professional. In 2019, there were 4.5 million non-fatal injuries documented for car crashes.

Early Evaluation of Fatal Accidents Rate by Sub-Categories in 2020

In another recent study, NHTSA analyzed driver behavior in 2020 automobile crashes. The foremost critical issues found were that:

  • Traffic fatalities within the category of unrestrained occupants increased by 15%
  • Casualties caused by speeding-related collisions jumped up 11%
  • Alcohol-related accidents were up by 9%

In 2020, fatalities increased in three quarters of the year: up to 1.1% within the first quarter and 13.1% within the fourth one. The second quarter saw a decrease but then by the third quarter, the rise in accidents reached 13.6%. As time goes on, it’ll be interesting to examine how these statistics compare with those from previous years.

Report on the Seat Belt Use in 2020 

Also relevant are the earlier findings from April 2020 on seat belt safety. These say that:

  • Seat belt use within the U.S. ranged from 68.2 percent within the U.S. Virgin Islands to 95.7 percent within the District of Columbia
  • The seat belt use rate nationwide was 90.3 percent, with a slight decrease from 90.7 percent in 2019

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the utilization of seat belts among drivers and passengers who were seriously injured or killed was on a downward trend during the first months of the pandemic.

In late 2020, seat belt use rates seemed to have rebounded. Belt use was still below the rate observed before the pandemic began but didn’t reach a level of statistical significance. The lower seat belt usage rates were higher for drivers who tested positive for alcohol or other drugs versus those that did not have any substances in their systems during testing.

The Emptier Streets Were More Lethal

The pandemic we experienced in 2020, accompanied by stay-at-home periods, would make the rise in traffic fatalities appear inexplicable. States issued COVID-19 lockdown orders from mid-March of 2020 through April, with some reopening to a degree in May and for others in June. Since most people weren’t traveling, the common assumption is that fatality rates would have decreased.

The NHTSA report stresses that, compared with 2019, there was a 13.2% decrease in traffic thanks to the pandemic’s impact.

So what happened with the fatality rate? In only one year, it’s risen. But why would this occur if everyone stayed at home apart from essential workers like firefighters and doctors—the only people who needed to drive daily to perform their duties? NHTSA estimates and common sense suggest that it’s not only one but many contributing factors that may increase car accidents. A number of these factors include an increased number of:

  • Distracted drivers
  • Drunk driving offenders
  • Stressed out individuals on the roadways
  • Drivers who experienced road rage

We still need to wait until the late fall of 2021 before learning more from the last report filed for 2020. NHTSA wants to collect data on any crashes that weren’t previously documented, including from police crash reports.

Considering the entire 38,680 deaths registered in 2020, it also makes sense that automobile accidents still be the frequent main form of personal injury case within the U.S.

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