- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2021

U.S. traffic crash deaths in 2020 hit their highest number in 13 years even though roads were less crowded as coronavirus pandemic shutdowns kept drivers off the streets, according to a new report.

An estimated 42,060 people died in car crashes last year, an 8% increase over 2019, the nonprofit National Safety Council said Thursday. The death rate per 100 million miles driven also jumped by 24%, the largest annual percentage increase since 1924, although the number of miles driven fell.

“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 and CEO 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.”

Deaths in 2020 were the highest since 2007, when 43,945 people died in car crashes. Also about 4.8 million people were seriously injured in crashes last year, costing about $474 billion, the nonprofit estimates.

For the report, the council pulled data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and counted deaths that occurred within 100 days of a crash on public and private roadways.

Americans drove about 2.8 trillion miles last year, a 13% drop, Ken Kolosh, the safety council’s manager of statistics told The Associated Press. He noted that excessive speed appears to be a top contributor, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There was also a reported increase in the use of alcohol, marijuana and opioids among trauma center patients involved in traffic crashes.

“Troubling trends across the country indicated emptier roads turned into risky racetracks. Speeding, and impaired and distracted driving increased while *seat belt use dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “This is a ‘perfect storm’ for disaster on our roadways. It is especially disturbing given the ongoing burdens and capacity constraints experienced by our health care system in response to the deadly pandemic. We must do all we can to keep road users safe and out of emergency rooms.”

The safety council report also shows that nine states had a decline in traffic crash deaths: Alaska (-3%), Delaware (-11%), Hawaii (-20%), Idaho (-7%), Maine (-1%), Nebraska (-9%), New Mexico (-4%), North Dakota (-1%) and Wyoming (-13%).

Meanwhile, vehicle fatalities increased by more than 15% last year in seven states and the District: Arkansas (26%), Connecticut (22%), District of Columbia (33%), Georgia (18%), Mississippi (19%), Rhode Island (26%), South Dakota (33%) and Vermont (32%).

Rhode Island had 71 highway deaths at the end of 2020, compared to 57 in 2019, said Charles St. Martin, spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation. Of the 71 deaths, 39 involved motor vehicles, 13 motorcyclists, 17 pedestrians and two bicyclists.

He said the department doesn’t know why it is seeing more vehicular deaths while driving is down.

“The numbers show people speeding, not using seat belts, driving impaired and distracted. Fewer cars on the road may have created a false sense that going faster would not matter. We are looking at all possibilities,” Mr. St. Martin said. “We monitored traffic counts on a daily basis through the pandemic and counts were off as much as 50% at the height of the stay at home periods. They still have not returned to normal numbers, and now are roughly 10 to 20% lower versus the same time a year ago.”

The Vermont State Highway Safety Office said fatalities increased from June to August as the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted.

“With lower traffic volumes and reduced enforcement, the temptation was to engage in risky behaviors. It is also hard to know for sure if otherwise safe drivers changed their habits or if there were more riskier drivers on the roads though,” the safety office said.

Vermont had 61 fatalities, up from 47 in 2019, according to the safety office. However, the number of traffic-crash deaths in 2019 was the second lowest for the state in 73 years; 2014 had 44 fatalities.

“It is difficult to compare one year to the next with relatively low numbers. The percentage change is very dramatic. Vermont typically trends in the 60 to 70 fatality range,” the office said.

The available state data as of now show that 46% of the crashes were impairment related while only 22% had to do with speeding.

About a quarter of the crashes involved a driver 65 years or older while 17% involved a motorcyclist, both below the 2019 levels.

* (Correction: A quote with an error provided to The Washington Times was corrected in the latest update.)

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