US Traffic Deaths Increase In Spite of COVID Lockdowns

Image by Rico Löb from Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected life as we know it in countless ways. The virus has swept across the globe, claiming millions of lives in the process and dominating discussions on a daily basis since late 2019, when it was first identified in Wuhan, China.

Now, vaccine rollouts across the globe are helping humanity return to some semblance of normality, with lockdown rules gradually being lifted in many countries and people being permitted to return to a more regular way of life.

The spread of new virus variants could still scupper re-opening plans, but for now, people have reasons to be hopeful, and many experts are taking the time to look back over the last couple of years to learn more about how COVID-19 and its lockdowns changed the world.

One area that is being analyzed in regard to lockdowns and quarantines is traffic data. Specifically, the NHTSA and other traffic authorities and organizations have been looking at numbers of deaths and accidents throughout 2020 and into the first half of 2021, with some surprising findings.

NHTSA Data Reveals Worrying Trend

Each year, the NHTSA reveals a new set of statistics regarding motor vehicle accidents and deaths all over the United States. In the years leading up to 2019, these reports had provided reasons for optimism, as the numbers of fatal accidents had gradually decreased from 2017 onward.

In 2020, however, the numbers make for much more concerning reading, with the NHTSA’s initial estimates suggesting that 38,680 people died in crashes and collisions in the year. This is the largest number of deaths since 2007.

These figures are particularly alarming due to the fact that fewer people were driving on America’s roads in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns and associated virus control measures; in other words, there were fewer people on the roads, but more people still got killed in crashes and collisions.

Fewer Drivers, More Deaths

The NHTSA data helps to illuminate the situation further. Reports from the authority show that the number of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, in 2020 dropped by just over 430 billion when compared to the figures from 2019. This represents about a 13% decrease in total, However, the total number of fatalities rose by just over 7%.

In simple terms, this means that Americans were driving a lot less during the pandemic, as many people were working from home or forced to quarantine at home due to exposure to the virus, while others were being treated for the virus or taking time off work during their recovery. Lots of businesses had to close down temporarily too or adjust to remote work.

Because of this, it would have been reasonable to believe that auto accidents would decrease. After all, fewer cars on the roads should logically result in fewer cars crashing and colliding with one another and causing economic and non-economic damages to those involved. In reality, as the numbers show, the opposite occurred.

Explaining the Numbers

So how can these figures be explained? Well, Jonathan Adkins, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, has suggested that speeding could be to blame for the majority of these auto accidents. Adkins went on to explain that, in the early stages of the pandemic, with wide open roads and fewer levels of traffic, many drivers were driving faster and breaking speed limits.

Over time, as the spread of the virus continued and lockdown rules were enforced on even stricter levels, there were even less vehicles out and about, leading to even more cases of speeding. What’s more, many drivers felt that they could get away with this, as statistics from many states show that the number of traffic stops declined during 2020.

Again, data from the NHTSA can be used to reinforce this notion. The authority found that there was a 22% increase in average driving speeds in several big cities during the pandemic, as compared to pre-COVID data. So, it can be realistically assumed that many people across the country were breaking speed limits and ending up in crashes as they were going too fast to avoid collisions.

Other data suggest that drugs and alcohol may have played a part in the US’ rising levels of car crashes during the COVID-19 pandemic. One study showed that 65% of drivers who had been injured in crashes in 2020 had drugs or alcohol in their systems. Before COVID, that percentage was a lot lower at just 50%.

The NHTSA has also revealed that fewer people were found to be using their seatbelts during the COVID-19 era, and all of this basically adds up to show that, during COVID-19 lockdowns, lots of drivers seemed to act like the rules of the road no longer applied to them. They were speeding, drinking, and driving more regularly, and not even using basic safety features in their vehicles.

Again, there are various possible explanations for this. It might be that the stresses and anxieties induced by the pandemic led to certain people acting recklessly or behaving in ways that they usually wouldn’t, or it may be that drivers felt like they were less likely to get caught, so decided to break the rules. Either way, the data paints a worrying picture.

Final Word

The numbers provided by the NHTSA and other organizations regarding traffic crashes and fatalities during the pandemic have, once again, shone the spotlight on the need for more safe driving education and possible enforcement across America. Even with modern safety features and laws, countless accidents are still happening, and even during a time of global crisis, the statistics have been particularly dramatic.

Millions of auto accidents are happening every year in the US and other countries across the world, and it’s important for drivers to acknowledge the risks they face when they set out on the road each day. You never know when you might encounter a reckless individual or drunk driver while making your usual journeys, so be sure to drive safe, stick to the speed limit, and follow the rules of the road.