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Traffic deaths soared in 2020 despite less travel during the pandemic

The National Safety Council reports that it was the biggest increase in 13 years

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Highway traffic deaths surged in 2020, according to preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council.

In a year when accidents, injuries, and deaths should have been dramatically lower because of the pandemic, 42,060 people are estimated to have died on American highways in 2020. That’s an 8 percent increase over 2019.

There was less traffic last year -- miles driven plunged 13 percent. Despite that, the preliminary estimated rate of death spiked by 24 percent over the previous 12-month period. According to National Safety Council data, that’s the largest increase in 96 years, when Americans were just learning to drive.

"It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn't reap any safety benefits," said Lorraine M. Martin, president of the National Safety Council. "These data expose our lack of an effective roadway safety culture. It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively, and NSC stands ready to assist all stakeholders, including the federal government."

Dangerous states

It was more dangerous to drive in some states than others last year. Highway deaths increased by 26 percent in Arkansas, 22 percent in Connecticut, 33 percent in Washington, DC, 33 percent in South Dakota, and 32 percent in Vermont.

Meanwhile, traffic deaths fell by 20 percent in Hawaii, 13 percent in Wyoming, 11 percent in Delaware, 9 percent in Nebraska, and 7 percent in Idaho.

Deaths nationwide increased as highway traffic fell sharply. Major auto insurance companies announced early in the pandemic that they were providing rebates to customers to offset the expected drop in claims.

Risky behavior

The insurance companies were correct that there would be fewer cars on the road, but they apparently miscalculated how those cars would be driven. Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attribute the increase in deaths to drivers taking too many risks when they encountered less crowded highways. 

“Preliminary data tells us that during the national health emergency, fewer Americans drove, but those who did took more risks and had more fatal crashes,” the agency said in a January statement.

In addition to the sharp rise in traffic deaths, the National Safety Council estimates that 4.8 million Americans were seriously injured in crashes last year at an estimated cost to society of $474 billion. 

With the release of its data, the Council is urging President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to commit to zero roadway deaths by 2050 – a call that NSC and more than 1,500 other organizations and individuals made in January in a letter to the new administration.

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