Oct 2, 2020 - Health

Traffic fatality rates spiked during the pandemic

An impaired driver was critically injured in this crash. Photo: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
An impaired driver was critically injured in this crash. Photo: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

There were fewer cars on the road last spring during the height of the pandemic, but traffic fatality rates increased 30% in the second quarter as evidence suggests drivers engaged in more risky behavior, federal officials say.

Why it matters: The sharp reversal in what had been a three-year trend toward lower traffic deaths raised alarms within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, where officials vowed to dig deeper.

  • "We've never seen trends like this and we feel an urgency ... to turn this around as quickly as possible," NHTSA deputy administrator James Owens said.

What they found: Total traffic volume fell 16% during the first half of 2020, NHTSA said in a release, while traffic deaths fell just 3%.

  • The fatality rate during the second quarter was 1.42 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, sharply higher than the first quarter rate of 1.10, which was in line with historical trends.
  • A second NHTSA study of trauma centers found seriously injured or fatal crash victims took risks during the pandemic that included speeding, driving impaired, and not using their seat belts.
  • For example, the study revealed a higher prevalence of alcohol, cannabinoids, and opioids in crash victims during the quarter compared to the months prior to the pandemic.

The bottom line: Risky behavior, along with a potential reduction in law enforcement and safety messaging during the pandemic, could have contributed to increased fatality rates, NHTSA concluded.

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