Why Road Fatalities Are Still High Despite the Decreased Traffic During COVID Pandemic

Data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) showed that Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) in 2020 was 430.2 billion lower than 2019, representing a 13.3 percent decrease. This is due to stay-at-home government directives aimed at combating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite fewer cars on the road, the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) preliminary report released on June 3, 2021, indicated that road fatalities in the US rose by 7.2 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. This percentage represents 38,680 fatalities, the highest since 2007. 

Road Users’ Fatality Statistics

According to NHTSA, passenger vehicle occupants contributed to the most significant number of fatalities, with data indicating 23,395 of the total 38,680 deaths recorded, a 5 percent rise from pre-pandemic levels. Motorcyclist fatalities rose by 9 percent compared to the previous year, representing 5,015 of the total fatalities. Death among cyclists also increased by 5 percent to reach 846, while pedestrian fatalities remained relatively unchanged.

Some of the factors that contributed to an increase in fatalities during the height of the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels as reviewed by the NHTSA include:

  • Occupant ejection (up 23 percent)
  • Unrestrained vehicle occupants (up 15 percent)
  • Urban interstate crashes (up 15 percent)
  • Speeding-related crashes (up 11 percent)
  • Nighttime crashes (up 11 percent)
  • Weekend crashes (up 9 percent)
  • Alcohol-related crashes (up 9percent) 

The NTHSA review also indicated a 23 percent rise in non-Hispanic Black American fatalities during the period. Still, some categories of road users appeared to have decreased fatalities during the pandemic. Commercial and non-commercial truck fatalities decreased by 2 percent, while road users above 65 years had a 9 percent decline in deaths compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Factors Causing Increased Road Fatalities Despite Fewer Cars Being On the Roads

Some experts suggest that lack of traffic rules enforcement during the pandemic emboldened more motorists to break the rules because they felt they could get away with it. “The fewer drivers on the road during the height of the pandemic found open roadways, resulting in speeding and reckless driving. Another problem may be that drivers will become impatient when these roads fill back up and continue these bad habits,” says attorney Felix Gonzalez

Another critical factor contributing to road fatalities is impaired driving. Statistics reveal that 65 percent of drivers seeking treatment at trauma centers after serious crashes had alcohol and drugs in their system, representing an over 14 percent increase in intoxicated driving-related crashes compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

The explanation for the spike in vehicle fatalities in 2020 is pretty straightforward. What seems to baffle traffic experts is the continued trend of high fatalities in 2021, even as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels. According to preliminary data from the NHTSA, road fatalities in January through March indicated a 10.5 percent increase from last year’s same months. According to experts, the only explanation for this trend would be something to do with driving behaviors picked from the lockdown period. 

Post-Pandemic Safe Driving Tips

While normalcy is slowly but surely resuming since the introduction of vaccines, it may take some time before we return to pre-COVID levels of road safety. However, driving within the speed limits now and even after the pandemic is one way to stay safe on roads. Additionally, staying on high alert (even on open roads) and observing all traffic laws no matter how pesky they seem can help ensure your safety every time you drive.