US Traffic Fatalities Hit 13-Year High In 2020, Largely Due To DUIs/DWIs, Not Wearing Seatbelts and Speeding

June 4, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

On Thursday, June 3, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that preliminary data seems to indicate that U.S. traffic deaths shot up by 7.2% in 2020 (as compared to 2019), despite the pandemic and associated lockdowns reducing road activity. Particularly in the second half of the year, traffic deaths went up a staggering 13% compared to the last two quarters of 2019. The 38,680 fatalities recorded over the course of 2020 was the highest yearly total since 2007.

This uptick came despite the fact that Americans drove 13% fewer miles in 2020 than they did in 2019, a drop of roughly 430.2 billion miles, per estimates from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The fatality rate, which gauges the number of deaths per 100 million miles covered, was 1.37, the highest it’s been since 2006; the figure was 1.11 in 2019. According to the NHTSA, deaths rose largely on the back of drivers increasingly engaging in unsafe behavior, particularly driving under the influence (9% increase over 2019), speeding (10% increase) and not wearing seatbelts (15%).

One theory is that as roads became emptier due to lockdowns and the lack of commuters, drivers became more reckless and more likely to engage in unsafe, risky behavior. Some might have even believed that, due to the pandemic, they were less likely to be caught and punished by police officers. The agency noted that its data indicates speeds increased throughout 2020, and extreme speeding seemed to become more commonplace.

This information seems to confirm worries from earlier in the year. A study released in March by the National Safety Council, a non-profit, estimated an 8% increase in the number of people that died in vehicle crashes in 2020, the first hike in that rate that it has reported in four years. At that time, the group’s manager of statistics cited increased evidence of alcohol, marijuana and opioid use in trauma center patients being treated after a vehicle crash.

The NHTSA said that fatalities in fact rose in 2020 across most of the major categories it tracks. For instance, motorcyclist deaths increased 9% and bicyclist deaths rose 5%. The number of pedestrian deaths remained steady. Demographically, there was a 23% rise in the number of non-Hispanic Black people killed in 2020, compared to 2019. The picture was rosier for some segments, though. Crashes involving large trucks likely fell by 2% and deaths of senior citizens (65 years and above) also likely dropped, by roughly 9%. 

The NHTSA says that its investigations into the worrying data continue and that it is trying to better understand what changed in 2020, what the contributing factors were and how such risk-taking behavior can be curbed. Acting Administrator Steven Cliff said that the agency plans to use all resources available to reduce these figures. Part of that, he said, would come from President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which would make “vital funding” — to the tune of roughly $19 billion — available to enhance road safety.

The NHTSA typically releases the final numbers in the fall.