The covid-19 pandemic had a surprising effect on road fatalities in 2020, new data released this week suggests. Despite people staying at home more and driving less overall, more than 42,000 Americans were estimated to have been killed during a car crash last year—a higher death toll than seen in 2019. It’s likely that increased reckless driving was to blame.
On Thursday, the National Safety Council, a long-running nonprofit organization focused on public and occupational safety, released its latest report on motor vehicle fatalities. According to their report, which relies on mortality data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 42,060 people were killed by a motor vehicle in 2020. That’s a number 8% higher than the 39,107 deaths estimated in 2019, and the first yearly increase seen in four years. In raw numbers, 2020 was the deadliest year in motor vehicle deaths since 2007. There were also 4.8 million people seriously injured by cars last year, along with an estimated $474 billion in societal costs.
This increase in deaths came despite a significant decline in driving, largely due to the pandemic and related restrictions on social events. According to data collected by the government, total miles driven in the U.S. dropped 13% last year. Yet, the death rate per every million miles actually spiked by 24%—the highest net increase seen since 1924, when the National Safety Council first began collecting this data.
The NSC’s estimates are still preliminary and subject to change. Historically, though, they don’t significantly differ from the government’s official statistics. The root cause of this jump in deaths, the organization said, can be traced to people being riskier on the road than usual.
“It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits,” Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, said in a statement released by the organization Thursday. “These data expose our lack of an effective roadway safety culture.”
Even as people are starting to drive as often as they did before the pandemic, there are also some worrying signs that risky driving isn’t declining in turn. “It’s kind of terrifying what we’re seeing on our roads,” Michael Hanson, director of the Minnesota Public Safety Department’s Office of Traffic Safety, told the AP. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the amount of risk-taking behavior.”
Speeding is thought to be the major factor behind the increase in road deaths. But there is also some indication that people are more often taking the wheel while intoxicated with alcohol or cannabis, Hanson added. Other research has shown a years-long trend in younger teen drivers being more likely to drive while high.
In its recent open letter to the Biden administration sent in January, the NSC and related organizations called for setting an ambitious goal of zero traffic deaths by 2050. As part of that long-term goal, the organization has recommended more immediate fixes such as the better implementation of existing safety laws, the lowering of the legal driving limit, and improvements to our roads and infrastructure.