The Traffic Death 'Crisis' Isn't What Bureaucrats Claim

Politicians overstate the situation, and to the extent there is a problem, it’s their doing.


To the limited extent that there was an upside during the early days of the pandemic, empty roads and reduced enforcement of petty traffic laws made what driving was still to be done relatively stress-free. But now that life has returned to something closer to what passes for normal these days, cars are back on the roads and traffic fatalities are rising. That has the usual suspects screaming that we're in a "crisis" that necessitates government action. But they overstate the case and, if there is a problem, it was caused by the politicians and bureaucrats who present themselves as our saviors.

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration…projects that an estimated 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, a 10.5% increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020," the federal agency announced this week. "The projection is the highest number of fatalities since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System's history."

"We face a crisis on America's roadways that we must address together," commented U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the President's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways."

Really? Last year's infrastructure law was an expensive boondoggle, and the flood of money it served up might help make the roads a tad safer only as higher inflation renders fuel for vehicles less affordable (though that may not be what Buttigieg has in mind). For its part, the Transportation Department's National Roadway Safety Strategy is a marvel of control-freakery that emphasizes speed limits, technology mandates, and rule enforcement. 

Among those in agreement is Urban Institute transportation expert Yonah Freemark. He favors "immediate interventions" including tighter speed limits and discouraging the sale of SUVs and pickup trucks that may be more lethal in accidents. All this to reverse that "devastating trend" of rising traffic deaths.

That increase in traffic deaths interrupts a decades-long decline in fatalities from 56,278 in 1972 to a low of 35,332 in 2010. That's remarkable when you consider that the U.S. population went from roughly 210 million to over 300 million during those years. If you measure traffic fatalities in an apples-to-apples way, the decline is even more astonishing.

"The population motor-vehicle death rate reached its peak in 1937 with 30.8 deaths per 100,000 population," the National Safety Council (NSC) notes of data through 2020. "The current rate is 12.9 per 100,000, representing a 58% improvement.…Since 1923, the mileage death rate has decreased 92% and now stands at 1.46 deaths per 100 million miles driven."

Federal highway bureaucrats invoke constant measures only after that breathless language about "the largest annual percentage increase" in traffic fatalities (their figures slightly differ from those of the NSC). As it turns out, "the fatality rate for 2021 was 1.33 fatalities per 100 million VMT [vehicle miles traveled], marginally down from 1.34 fatalities in 2020. While the fatality rate continued to rise in the first quarter, it declined in the other three quarters of 2021, compared to 2020."

So, it turns out that there was a big jump in the raw number of fatalities as people returned to the road after pandemic-related interruptions, but this jump represented a slight decline in the rate of traffic fatalities once you consider the number of miles driven. That's not what we were sold in the opening paragraphs of the press release, but it's not entirely good news since the rate was already elevated. 

"The preliminary estimated rate of death on the roads [in 2020] spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period, despite miles driven dropping 13%," the National Safety Council, which also favors tighter driving restrictions, cautioned in March 2021. "The increase in the rate of death is the highest estimated year-over-year jump that NSC has calculated since 1924 – 96 years."

That's a surge in deaths by a constant measure, and it's weird. Why, after decades of improving highway safety did the rate of traffic fatalities jump up on relatively empty roads? But 2020 wasn't exactly an uneventful year. Could that surge have something to do with the pandemic, social distancing, and lockdowns that emptied those roads and disturbed our society in so many other ways?

"Evidence shows what service providers long suspected," the Justice Department conceded last October. "The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the domestic violence crisis by further isolating many people from family, friends, and support systems; and created even deeper economic and emotional hardship."

"In order to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2 quarantines, social isolation, travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders have been adopted," a December 2020 article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine pointed out. "Quarantine conditions are associated with alcohol abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Stay-at-home orders may cause a catastrophic milieu for individuals whose lives are plagued by domestic violence."

"Some short-term impacts, such as isolation during lockdowns, led to longer-term problems, such as increases in crime and substance abuse," social analysts from Maryville University point out. "The National Center for Health Statistics, for example, indicates that drug overdose deaths increased by 27% between April 2020 and April 2021, likely due to the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19….While property crime and drug offense rates fell between 2019 and 2020, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, homicide rates increased by 42% between June and August of 2020 — a spike that may be due to increased stress and a change in routines."

You can add the social dysfunction of your choice here. There's ample evidence that the stresses of recent years made people a little nuts and worsened conflict and destructive behavior in shops, the streets, and the skies. While pandemic restrictions did little to slow a virus that we're learning to live with, they were very effective at shattering the economy, severing bonds, and turning people against one another. It would be surprising if that didn't also show up on the nation's highways as people acting out everywhere else got behind the wheels of their cars.

And, just as government officials want more laws and increased enforcement to deal with the other problems they caused, so Buttigieg and his fellow travelers call for a heavier hand when it comes to roads and automobiles. But that's what got us here to begin with in the form of lockdowns and other interventions. Control freaks broke the world by restricting normal life and now they claim the unpleasant consequences of their policies as an excuse to further tighten the screws.