- The signs have been there since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but with more people driving badly and driving habits changing, the number of fatalities in the first quarter of 2021 was the highest since at least 2009.
- The number of fatalities that happened in the first three months of this year was 1.26 per 100 million miles traveled, up from 1.12 in 2020, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in its latest report.
- The solutions are things we already know—less distracted and impaired driving, for example—but these messages aren't breaking through the way they need to to bring the numbers down.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have changed the automotive habits of U.S. drivers. First we drove less, then we drove faster while apparently paying less attention, and then the number of fatal crashes started to climb. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has now released its numbers from the first quarter of 2021, and it turns out American roads got even more dangerous as the pandemic has continued. During the first three months of this year, NHTSA said an estimated 8730 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes. Since there were 7900 fatalities in the same time period in 2020, that represents an increase of about 10.5 percent.
In late 2020, NHTSA released fatal crash statistic estimates that predicted a 2 percent decline in the actual number of people who have died in motor vehicle traffic crashes between 2019 and 2020. That made sense, since the nation's driving habits completely changed last year. But when the NHTSA factored in the reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the fatality rate actually increased. For every 100 million VMT, there were 1.06 fatalities in 2019 and 1.25 in all of 2020.
When NHTSA ran the same VMT calculations, the number of fatalities in 2021 rose to 1.26 fatalities per 100 million VMT, compared to 1.12 for the first quarter of 2020. In both pure numbers and rate per 100 VMT, these are the highest first-quarter fatality rates since at least 2009, according to a NHTSA fact sheet.
NHTSA doesn't just want to report on how much more dangerous the roads are these days; it wants to make them safer. This is why the agency released a new edition of its Countermeasures That Work report alongside the new fatality estimates. This reports identifies the what kinds of actions can reduce road fatalities, and the suggestions should be familiar to most drivers: stopping impaired, distracted, and drowsy driving; keeping bicyclists and motorcyclists safer; and making sure people wear their seatbelts, among other options. This all sounds repetitive, sure, but imagine having to be the agency representative who has to keep telling Americans how to drive safer.
"We must address the tragic loss of life we saw on the roads in 2020 by taking a transformational and collaborative approach to safety," NHTSA acting administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement. "Everyone—including those who design, operate, build, and use the road system—shares responsibility for road safety. We are working closely with our safety partners to address risky driving behaviors."
It's important to note that these numbers are just early estimates, which NHTSA puts out regularly. They will be updated with more accurate figures when various agencies submit their numbers to the safety agency later this year, but the trends don't look good.
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