In spite of driving rates being much lower in 2020 due to pandemic-related travel disruptions, the rate of fatal crashes rose 7%, hitting a 13-year high of 38,680 deaths.
According to preliminary data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatalities rose in nearly every major category, including crashes between automobiles and bicycles, motorcycle accidents, drunken driving collisions and the number of people killed in passenger vehicle wrecks.
Interestingly, pedestrian accident rates stayed the same, and the rate of people killed in collisions with large trucks fell 9%. Deaths among the elderly – those drivers over the age of 65 – also fell.
Why are fatal crashes on the rise?
The number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fell dramatically in 2020 as cities around the country instituted shelter-in-place orders to stave off the spread of the coronavirus. Record numbers of non-essential workers stayed off the roadways and worked from home. Statistics show roughly 430.2 billion fewer cumulative miles traveled in 2020 as compared to 2019, representing a decrease of 13%.
So, the question remains, then: Why did the rate of fatal crashes increase if there were fewer drivers on the road?
The NHTSA hasn’t released final traffic accident causality data yet, but there are some well-educated theories as to why deadly crashes went up dramatically.
The first is increased speeds among those drivers left on the roadways. Seeing an empty road ahead proved too tempting for many drivers, and they put the proverbial pedal to the metal. As we all know, the higher the speed, the more serious the injuries when a crash occurs. Whereas a low-speed crash might result in a few broken bones, fatalities are common when vehicles are traveling above highway speeds at the time of impact.
Drivers also took more chances with their own safety during 2020. More vehicle occupants in fatal crashes were found without their all-important seat belts. Wearing a seat belt is akin to wearing a helmet on a motorcycle or bicycle; doing so won’t prevent a crash, but it just might save your life. NHTSA data shows that the rate of “unrestrained occupants” of deadly accidents rose 15%.
There were also higher reported rates of drunk driving and distracted driving in 2020, both of which are known to result in injury-causing and deadly accidents.