Nov 3, 2021 - Health

America's roads are getting deadlier

U.S. quarterly traffic fatalities
Data: U.S. Department of Transportation; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Motor vehicle crash fatalities experienced the largest half-year spike on record in the first six months of 2021.

Why it matters: Road deaths are one of the biggest if underappreciated public health threats in the U.S. and the world.

  • Speeding, distracted driving, and drug and alcohol use all play a role, but tougher automated traffic policing could help reduce the death toll.

By the numbers: An estimated 20,160 people died in motor vehicle accidents through the first half of 2021, according to data released late last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

  • That's the highest total for the first six months of the year since 2006 and about 18% higher than the death toll for the first half of 2020 — the biggest percentage increase for that time period since NHTSA began keeping records in 1975.
  • It puts the U.S. on track for more than 40,000 motor vehicle crash deaths in 2021, roughly equivalent to the number of Americans who died last year in gun homicides, suicides and accidents combined.

What they're saying: "This is a crisis," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement after the data was released. "We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America.”

That's precisely what we do.

  • The U.S. has long been an outlier among relatively well-off nations for its dangerous roads — a recent OECD report ranked only a few countries like Mexico and South Africa below the U.S. for per capita road fatalities.
  • Most of America's economic peers have seen road fatalities drop over the past 20 years, some quite significantly.
  • U.S. motor vehicle deaths are also down somewhat from 2000, but the drop is shallower, and since hitting a modern low of 32,479 in 2011, deaths have generally risen over the past decade.

Between the lines: The pandemic marked the beginning of the surge in U.S. motor vehicle fatalities.

  • 38,680 people died on U.S. roads in 2020, a roughly 7% increase from the year before.
  • But that figure is starker because deaths rose even as the number of miles driven by Americans dropped by about 13% in 2020 to the lowest level in two decades.
  • While driving is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, motor vehicle deaths per mile traveled have barely fallen.

Context: As the roads emptied out during the pandemic, it opened up room for Americans to indulge their worst road habits: driving too fast, too distracted and, often, too impaired. And those habits have continued into 2021.

  • Data cited by NHTSA shows average speed increased during the last three quarters of 2020, and extreme speed — 20 mph or more above the posted speed limit — became more common, which helped result in an 11% increase in speed-related fatalities.
  • Research found an increase in the involvement of drugs and alcohol in crashes, with one study showing almost two-thirds of seriously or fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one intoxicant between mid-March and mid-July 2020.
  • Data also showed an increase in phone use while driving during the pandemic and into 2021, which further contributes to accidents. An analysis by Zendrive found in more than 16% of the crashes its algorithm detects, a cellphone was manipulated less than five seconds before impact.

What's next: Individuals voluntarily adopting safer driving practices would go a long way in cutting down on fatalities. Since three-quarters of U.S. drivers already think they're safer than average, that may be wishful thinking. But steps can be taken to engineer safer roads.

  • The Netherlands once had a car fatality rate higher than the U.S., Marina Bolotnikova points out in a smart piece for Vox. The country cut the rate to one-third American levels by reengineering streets to protect pedestrians and reduce speeds.
  • The Brazilian city of São Paulo cut crashes by almost 22% after it reduced speed limits in 2015 and enforced the new rules through automated traffic cameras.

The catch: City and local governments in only 22 states and the District of Columbia use red-light cameras, and only 16 states and D.C. use speed cameras.

The bottom line: As with COVID-19 and gun violence — two other health threats where the U.S. is often an international outlier — the death toll from driving is largely a matter of what policy and behavioral changes we're willing to accept.

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