When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the country last year, highways emptied as many people took refuge in their homes. But those who got behind the wheel engaged in riskier behaviors, leading to deadliest year for traffic accidents in the United States in over a decade.
More motorists went too fast, did not buckle up and drove under the influence of drugs and alcohol, according to law enforcement and road safety experts.
The result was gloomy. About 38,680 people died in car crashes in the United States last year – the highest number since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Deaths have also increased among motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians, even as the number of kilometers traveled across the country decreased by 13.2% compared to 2019.
“It is mind-boggling and extremely frustrating to see the enormous loss of life from Covid compounded by preventable traffic accidents”, says Pam Shadel Fischer, Senior Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Experts have several theories for the increase in fatalities.
And based on preliminary data from the first three months of this year, 2021 could be even worse.
Motorists were encouraged by more empty roads
The recent increase in fatalities has been observed in all regions of the country.
In New York state, more than 1,000 people died in traffic accidents last year compared to 938 the year before, said Beau Duffy, spokesman for the state police. The percentage of crashes involving unsafe speed, alcohol or illegal drugs all increased in 2020 from 2019 levels, Duffy said.
The accidents in Colorado reflected similar trends. Speeding incidents – exceeding the limit of 40 mph or more – increased 48% last year compared to 2019, said Sgt. Colorado State Patrol spokesperson Blake White. The state has also seen an increase in road rage, incidents of street racing and other aggressive behavior.
âDuring the height of the pandemic, many drivers stayed at home and were discouraged from traveling unless absolutely necessary,â White said. “Some of the drivers on the road seemed to have the impression that the traffic laws were no longer enforced during the pandemic due to the decrease in the volume of commuter traffic.”
As drivers returned to the highways, they had to adjust to sharing space with others after a year of open roads. One of the results was an increase in road rage, White said.
Despite fewer cars on the roads, pedestrian fatalities have also increased last year.
An analysis of state data projects that 6,721 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roads last year, up 4.8% from 2019, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
âEven though there were fewer vehicles on the road last year, more people on foot were struck and killed by drivers,â said Adam Snider, director of communications for GHSA.
Taking into account the decrease in the number of kilometers traveled by vehicles in 2020, the pedestrian fatality rate jumped 21% from 2019 – the largest annual increase since NHTSA began collecting and analyzing these. data in 1975.
Speeding caused more deadly wrecks
During the pandemic, many officers shifted their focus to helping critical industries such as grocery stores with supply shortages, Colorado’s White said. This meant a drop in the enforcement of road safety, he said.
As a result, many motorists put the pedal to the metal, which resulted in more deaths.
âThe increased speeds lead to more fatalities and injuries,â White said. “As the speed increases, the severity of the accident is exponentially worse.”
Many other large states, including California and Georgia, also reported an increase in fatalities last year. In Georgia, while there were fewer accidents statewide, the number of fatalities increased last year due to speed, said Lt. W. Mark Riley of the Georgia State Patrol.
âWith the roads more open and more and more people increasing their speed, the wrecks were more violent,â he said. âIt’s always riskier when people are driving faster. “
Last year, California Highway Patrol officers issued 28,000 speeding tickets over 100 miles per hour, a 92% increase from 2019. The state also saw an increase of fatal crashes last year, following declines in the number of the previous two years, said Jaime Coffee, a spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol.
Coffee said the CHP was working with other highway patrols and state police departments on road safety campaigns focused on enforcing safe speeds.
More fatalities have been linked to drugs and alcohol
Beyond speeding and reckless driving, more and more people have turned to alcohol to cope with the prolonged stress and uncertainty of the pandemic.
The overall frequency of alcohol consumption has increased around 14% in 2020, while women increased their heavy drinking days – defined as four or more drinks at one time – by 41% compared to the same months in 2019.
“We all had so much on our minds throughout 2020 which makes it even harder than usual for some drivers to focus on the road amidst all that is going on in the world around them.” said Snider of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
âIn addition, the pandemic has likely exacerbated drug addiction problems in some people,â he said.
Data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed an increased prevalence of drugs and alcohol among drivers killed or seriously injured in crashes during the pandemic.
âGetting drivers to slow down and stay within the speed limit, complete every trip and always drive sober will be key to reversing these negative trends,â said Snider.
But the first signs for 2021 are not encouraging.
Preliminary data shows the United States recorded about 9,420 road fatalities in the first three months of 2021, according to the National Security Council, a nonprofit security advocacy group. That’s up 10% from the same period in 2020 and 12% from 2019, according to the NSC.