Safety

Last Year's 'Staggering Increase in Traffic Fatalities' Reflects Increased Driving After a Pandemic-Related Drop

While the fatality rate rose substantially in 2020, it remained essentially the same in 2021.

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Newly released estimates from the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate that traffic fatalities jumped by nearly 12 percent during the first nine months of last year compared to the same period in 2020. That's "the highest percentage increase during the first 9 months since NHTSA started collecting fatality data in 1975," notes a press release from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The headline: "New Report Reveals Staggering Increase in Traffic Fatalities on U.S. Roadways in First 9 Months of 2021."

Notably missing from MADD's press release: any mention of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in 2020 led to a sharp reduction in driving, thanks to a combination of voluntary precautions and legal restrictions. Driving has rebounded since then, which makes a crucial difference in assessing the change highlighted by MADD. Far from showing a "staggering increase," the estimated fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) was essentially the same during the first nine months of 2021 as it was in the first nine months of 2020: 1.36 vs. 1.35.

You might dismiss MADD's framing of NHTSA's numbers as the predictable hyperbole of an advocacy group looking for ammunition in policy debates. But press coverage of the increase in traffic deaths also conspicuously overlooked the most obvious explanation.

There is legitimate cause for concern about longer-term trends in traffic fatalities. The annual fatality rate per 100 million VMT rose by 23 percent in 2020, from 1.11 to 1.37, after declining for three consecutive years. But focusing on the change between 2020 and 2021 while emphasizing total numbers rather than rates is more than a little misleading.

Between February 2020 and February 2021, VMT during the previous 12 months fell by more than 13 percent. By contrast, NHTSA reports that "vehicle miles traveled in the first nine months of 2021 increased by about 244 billion miles, an 11.7% increase from the same time in 2020." That is about the same as the increase in crash deaths, which is why the fatality rate barely budged.

MADD is using the new NHTSA numbers to reinforce its argument for "swift implementation of the Congressionally mandated rulemaking to require drunk driving prevention technology in all new cars." Whatever the merits of that policy, the fact that the traffic fatality rate remained about the same last year is obviously not helpful from MADD's perspective, which presumably is why it chose to ignore that important point. But the Associated Press story about NHTSA's report also plays up the increase in total fatalities.

"US road deaths rise at record pace as risky driving persists," the headline says. "The estimated figure of people dying in motor vehicle crashes from January to September 2021 was 12% higher than the same period in 2020," A.P. reporter Hope Yen writes. "That represents the highest percentage increase over a nine-month period since the Transportation Department began recording fatal crash data in 1975."

Unlike MADD, Yen does mention the pandemic, but without noting its impact on miles traveled. Instead she reports that "NHTSA has blamed reckless driving behavior for increases during the pandemic, citing behavioral research showing that speeding and traveling without a seat belt have been higher." An October 28 A.P. story about NHTSA's estimates for the first six months of 2021, by contrast, noted that "the latest spike in fatalities came as people drove more as pandemic shutdowns eased." It cited data indicating that "vehicle miles traveled in the first six months of the year rose by 173.1 billion miles, around a 13% increase from last year."

The idea that drivers became more reckless in 2020 is supported by NHTSA's research, and it is consistent with the increase in the annual fatality rate per 100 million VMT between 2019 and 2020. The 2020 rate was the highest reported since 2007, although still much lower than the rates seen in the preceding decades. While it looks like that relatively high rate persisted during the first nine months of 2021, NHTSA notes that "the fatality rates in the second and third quarters of 2021 declined compared to 2020."

The real story here is not a "staggering increase" in total traffic fatalities between 2020 and 2021. It is the even larger increase in the fatality rate between 2019 and 2020, which was a stark contrast with the remarkable progress seen since the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. The 2020 rate was still less than one-third the 1970 rate, less than half the 1980 rate, 37 percent lower than the 1990 rate, and 10 percent lower than the 2000 rate. But it is reasonable to worry that the 2020 increase signals a problem that will persist after the pandemic.

According to NHTSA's research, "average speeds increased during the last three quarters of 2020, and extreme speeds, those 20 miles per hour (or more) higher than the posted speed limit, became more common." At the same time, "analyses
of data from fatal crashes" showed "an estimated 11% increase in speeding-related fatalities." NHTSA says the explanation for those changes is not entirely clear: "While previous research had posited that decreases in VMT in 2020 had allowed increases in speeds compared to 2019, the return of VMT in 2021 paired with increased speeds on different roadway types in 2021 suggests this supposition may not completely explain differences in behavior."

Other data "suggested fewer people in crashes used their seat belts." Ejections per 100 crashes spiked in the first quarter of 2020, then fell but remained at a higher level than usual for the rest of the year.

An October 2020 NHTSA study found that 27 percent of seriously or fatally injured roadway users tested positive for alcohol in the spring and summer of 2020, up from about 21 percent before the pandemic. The share testing positive for opioids rose from less than 8 percent to nearly 13 percent. According to survey results reported last September, 7.6 percent of U.S. drivers said they were more likely to drink and drive during the pandemic. NHTSA adds that "increases in sales of alcohol and marijuana, while indirect measures of risk to road traffic safety, are indicators of social changes that could have traffic safety implications."

Assuming that the social and economic disruption caused by COVID-19 explains the increases in risky behavior described by NHTSA, the traffic fatality rate may continue the downward trend observed in the second and third quarters of 2021. In a year or two we should have a better idea of what is happening.

"Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged help and released a new national strategy last week aimed at reversing the trend, which he calls a crisis," A.P. reports. His solution includes "billions in grants under President Joe Biden's new infrastructure law to spur states and localities to lower speed limits and embrace safer road design such as dedicated bike and bus lanes, better lighting and crosswalks." Buttigieg "also urges the use of speed cameras, which the department says could provide more equitable enforcement than police traffic stops."

Those policies, like the ones favored by MADD, should be judged on their merits. But it would help to understand the nature of the "crisis" that Buttigieg perceives. At this point, it's not clear whether the 2020 increase in the traffic fatality rate represents a lasting reversal or a pandemic-related anomaly.

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  1. "Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged help and released a new national strategy last week aimed at reversing the trend, which he calls a crisis,"

    We could lock down the country, that would work.

    1. You're basically an evil monster if you allow people to get into these death traps and hurtle down concrete strips at high rates of speed. How dare you?!

    2. So he has solved the supply chain issue?

    3. Ooh! Ooh! Another crisis! Where do we line up to grab more power and money?

  2. Perhaps a curiously timed documentary about Pete Buttigieg can appear on one of the streaming services.

  3. Covid-related deaths.

    1. Some people familiar with side effects from the vax have speculated that the "brain fog" that often occurs may be a factor in traffic accidents.

      1. Is that like a “brain cloud”?

  4. I think we could redefine traffic death. That might work.

    1. He didn't die in traffic, he died from blunt force trauma (in the hospital). It was a hospital death.

  5. One thing we can be quite sure of is that nobody in a position to do so will give any consideration to whether or not drivers who wear masks while driving are having any impact on traffic fatalities.

    1. Don't give them ideas.

  6. The dramatic rise in traffic fatalities had two main reasons during the pandemic. One was a dramatic increase in substance abuse as people were unemployed and locked down--and the other was that the dramatic decrease in traffic density led people to drive at much higher speeds than they would at higher traffic densities.

    If there's something especially interesting to learn from the traffic fatality data of 2020 and 2021, it's in comparison to similar data from the recession of 2008 and 2009, which also so law numbers of people lose their jobs over a short period of time without a huge increase in traffic fatalities.

    One hypothesis to explain the difference is the lack of lockdowns in 2008 and 2009. Traffic densities may have fallen during 2008 and 2009 because people weren't driving to work, but they didn't fall as low because people were still driving around--just not back and forth to work. During the pandemic lockdowns, there wasn't anywhere to go but the grocery store.

    Likewise, people's social lives weren't disrupted during the recession of 2008 and 2009 like they were by the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. You don't need to be a expert on substance abuse to know that unemployment, depression, anxiety, and social isolation are all contributing factors to drug and alcohol abuse--and all four were exacerbated dramatically by the lockdowns.

    In the future, if MADD wants to cut down on traffic fatalities due to impaired driving, instead of pushing to punish people after the fact, maybe they should push hard against local and state government inflicting lockdowns. I suspect we'll find that the lockdowns were a huge contributing factor to both substance abuse and traffic fatalities.

    1. I would add lawlessness to your reasons, . People are just not inclined to obey laws like the used to be. I drive over 600 miles a week in some heavy traffic in and out of the Silicone valley. I'm seeing all kinds of bad behavior. At the same time I'm not seeing much in the way of police cruisers pulling anyone over. I've given up on riding my bike because it's just to dangerous.

      It sucks.

      1. exactly MY first thought on the matter. I have noticed since the lockdowns were started that far many more nutcase drivers were out on the road. Some of this may be a factor related to the fct theat the sesoned daily commuters were thinned out, and thus most traffic was able to move much faster. This was a VERY welcome thing for me. Had big city freeways all to my self mostly any time day or night. The few others on the road were moveing at 70 in posted (ridiculously low) 50 zones on inner city freeays. Not a copper in sight. But as the lockdowns began to thaw a little, the nutjobs, perhaps expressing pent up frustration and boredom, were out in force, dicing lanes, weainv through the 70 mph traffic at 90 or so. Tailgating weaving, aggresive driving was epidemic. Might even say PANdemic. And many of thedrivers who WERE out ore the occasional non-seasoned class, marginally safe drivers by any calculation. Mix them up with the psychotic crazie,s and BOOM happens a whole lot more.

        In the two tates in which I drive the most (probably 30K per year between them) most speed limits are posted at insanely low rates on the freeways. The definition of "maximum safe speed" is that rate at which 80% of drivers will drive given no posted limit.,. (or ignroing the posted limits) When open sections are posted at 50 or 55, most vehicles are crusing at 70. The problems come when some driver settles in on the left lane doing the posted number. Traffic balls up behind them, frutrated or crazy people dodge and weave to get rund them. Even the big rigs will be moving at the safe speed of 70 or so (I KNOW those machines can handle higher speeds safely as I drive them, and I also note that in almost all the not-west cost states the posted limits apply to ALL vehiciles, ther eis not a "speshul" lower limit for the rigs, thus removing the extreme hzerd when the truck is putting at 55 and traffic wants to move at 75... but gets clogged up behing the truck who is doing the "speshul" truck speed. The three Worst Cosat States need to end this madness. When SMokey is out and about the rigs move at a very safe and conservative 70 or so. HE shows up and the crunchis on again. Stupid, and hazardous.

      2. exactly MY first thought on the matter. I have noticed since the lockdowns were started that far many more nutcase drivers were out on the road. Some of this may be a factor related to the fct theat the sesoned daily commuters were thinned out, and thus most traffic was able to move much faster. This was a VERY welcome thing for me. Had big city freeways all to my self mostly any time day or night. The few others on the road were moveing at 70 in posted (ridiculously low) 50 zones on inner city freeays. Not a copper in sight. But as the lockdowns began to thaw a little, the nutjobs, perhaps expressing pent up frustration and boredom, were out in force, dicing lanes, weainv through the 70 mph traffic at 90 or so. Tailgating weaving, aggresive driving was epidemic. Might even say PANdemic. And many of thedrivers who WERE out ore the occasional non-seasoned class, marginally safe drivers by any calculation. Mix them up with the psychotic crazie,s and BOOM happens a whole lot more.

        In the two tates in which I drive the most (probably 30K per year between them) most speed limits are posted at insanely low rates on the freeways. The definition of "maximum safe speed" is that rate at which 80% of drivers will drive given no posted limit.,. (or ignroing the posted limits) When open sections are posted at 50 or 55, most vehicles are crusing at 70. The problems come when some driver settles in on the left lane doing the posted number. Traffic balls up behind them, frutrated or crazy people dodge and weave to get rund them. Even the big rigs will be moving at the safe speed of 70 or so (I KNOW those machines can handle higher speeds safely as I drive them, and I also note that in almost all the not-west coast states the posted limits apply to ALL vehiciles, ther eis not a "speshul" lower limit for the rigs, thus removing the extreme hzerd when the truck is putting at 55 and traffic wants to move at 75... but gets clogged up behing the truck who is doing the "speshul" truck speed. The three Worst Cosat States need to end this madness. When SMokey is out and about the rigs move at a very safe and conservative 70 or so. HE shows up and the crunch is on again. Stupid, and hazardous.

        1. Instead of using the passing lane to pass, many/most drivers now illegally stay in the passing lane, refusing to pass slower cars in the right lane, while preventing other drivers from get around them.

          It also seems like many/most drivers are too busy texting they don't pay attention to other drivers.

  7. >> in 2020 led to a sharp reduction in driving

    was fucking beautiful I had Dallas to myself. wish everyone had stayed home.

    1. I started hoping there would be more deaths and the roads would stay empty, just for me.

      Hashtag Thanos.

  8. I mean ok but you didn't seem to give a fuck about looking at inflation through the scope of the lack of it during covid (ie. lower than normal) when you complained about how high it is now. Nor did you really care about the sectors that most of it came from so..

    In any case, we should be striving towards vision zero anyhow and our infrastructure could use a huge revamp to slow cars down naturally through street design, etc.

    1. "slow cars down naturally through street design"

      Huh?

      Replicate Lombard Street nationwide?

    2. "...slow cars down naturally through street design, etc."

      Naturally is potholes.

      By design is speed bumps or rumble strips.

      1. if you slightly s-curve your highway every mile or so it makes people slow down just a little bit ... they did it when they re-designed 75 out of downtown Dallas. it works.

        1. Even better - reverse bank the curves (like a roundabout) so that drivers never feel habituated to going fast through the curve.

    3. I’m not interested in taking more time to get to where I want to go.

    4. Slowing drivers leads to more traffic, which is worse for the fucking environment.

    5. Need more roundabouts, amiright? Europe does it! We should always follow what Europe does.

  9. I actually wonder if he is thinking about banning private vehicle ownership. That is probably his dream for 0 traffic deaths. Only pubic transit with a fantasy of perfect safety. Possibly professional driver services for the rich with heavily regulated and trained drivers as another safety fantasy.

    1. Princess Di Chauffeuring

  10. Let's set a totally unrealistic goal of zero traffic injuries or deaths and then just continue to ramp up the restrictions until we get it!

  11. Guess earlier when I asked if it was time to dust off Sammy Hagar's can't drive 55 may be actually prophetic if Butttigeg gets his way.

  12. What does D.A.M.M. have to say about it?

    1. Drunks Against Mad Mothers

  13. Vehicle miles traveled is a worse-than-useless rate stat when the victim is either a pedestrian or a cyclist. Those rate stats are intended to pretend that making cars safer for occupants inside the vehicle also makes them safer for pedestrians/etc outside the vehicle who are getting hit by the vehicle. The reverse is what is true. The safer the 'cage', the more dangerous it is for those outside a 'cage'.

    And the reality is that it is pedestrian fatalities that have been absolutely rising the most over the last decade - 46% increase in ped fatalities from 2010-2019 v 5% all other fatalities. This is not because people are walking more.

    1. Get rid of bike lanes and give everyone their own car.

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