Nov 4, 2021 - Podcasts

America's roads are getting deadlier

Motor vehicle crash fatalities spiked in the first six months of this year — the biggest half-year rise on record. That’s according to new data from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and it's something Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is calling “a crisis.”

  • Plus, inside New Jersey’s nail-biter election.
  • And, Democrats' plan for drug prices.

Guests: Nancy Solomon, managing editor for New Jersey Public Radio and WNYC; and Axios' Bryan Walsh and Caitlin Owens.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird and David Toledo. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, November 4.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re following today: inside New Jersey’s nail-biter election. Plus, Democrats plan for drug prices.

But first, America’s roads getting deadlier… is today’s One Big Thing.

Fatalities from motor vehicle crashes spiked in the first six months of this year. In fact, it's the biggest half-year rise on record. That's according to new data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, something transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg is calling “a crisis.” Axios Future correspondent Bryan Walsh has been looking at why this is happening. Hi Bryan.


NIALA: What are we seeing here? And why are car crash deaths going up so much?

BRYAN: Well, we're clearly seeing an increase in the sheer number of people dying in the number of accidents and in terms of why it's happening, I mean, it really comes down to driver behavior. We've seen real increases in speeding and reckless driving and drivers who are in accidents who have some kind of intoxicant drugs or alcohol in their system, in distracted driving, basically everything that makes driving more dangerous, Americans have been doing more really since the start of the pandemic and that's continued and actually worsened into 2021

NIALA: So that increase was 18%. Does that then mean that less people were driving last year so there were less deaths?

BRYAN: Actually, that's not the case. Uh, 38,680 people died on U.S. roads in 2020, which was a 7% increase from the year before. What's really interesting is that happened even though we were driving much, much less. And you'd think that would lead to a drop in deaths. That's not what happened. People took advantage of that time to speed more, to drive more recklessly again, to drive off with more intoxication. The result was even as you were driving less, the number of deaths per 1 million vehicle miles traveled, which is how they track it, went up a lot in 2020.

NIALA: We talk about public health problems around the pandemic. Is this seen as a public health issue?

BRYAN: It is seen as a public health issue but I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves considering the sheer numbers we're talking about here. And it's a public health issue in a few ways. One simply in the number of people who were affected, but also in the way that the public decisions we make in terms of how we design our roads, what kind of traffic enforcement we actually use really does make a difference in terms of who will live and who will die when it comes through to car crashes.

NIALA: So it's not inevitable because it does seem to be a sense in the U. S. of, ‘oh, this is just, you get in a car, it’s dangerous.’

BRYAN: Yeah, it really does seem as if we've just kind of given up on that. Um, but no, we've seen other countries in Europe really be successful in reducing motor vehicle deaths over the last number of decades by re-engineering roads to make it harder to speed. It seems like in the U S it's it's impart the car culture we have here. It's in part, the larger cars we have, which can be more dangerous, especially for pedestrians who are dying in very large numbers. But I think also . It's, the same kind of trends we're seeing around violence more generally. It's almost as if the pandemic has kind of loosened something in the American psyche, and we're just acting more recklessly, kind of across the board. And we're seeing that toll on the roads.

NIALA: Bryan Walsh is Axios' future correspondent. Thank you as always Bryan.

BRYAN: Thank you!

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with why the gubernatorial race in New Jersey is so close.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Let’s break down the election surprise that unfolded in New Jersey this week. Democrat Phil Murphy, the incumbent, started as the heavy favorite in Tuesday’s elections, leading by double digits in the polls. But his republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli did so well that the election was still too close to call through much of yesterday. The race was finally called for Murphy last night - and to help us make sense of what happened we’ve got Nancy Solomon, who covers NJ politics for WNYC. Hi Nancy!


NIALA: Why was this election so close and how did no one see this result coming?

NANCY: I certainly didn't see it coming. You have, you know, Murphy leading by double digits for the last two months and you know, he had an even bigger lead over the summer. And, um, I think, you know, it's quite possible that Democrats saw those poll results and thought, you know, out of your busy day do you really have to bother to go vote? The guy is going to win. So why bother? And these off-year elections that New Jersey does, you know, they typically have low voter turnout. So then, you know, you get this enthusiasm gap. You had Republicans who were really excited about their candidate and really saw like an opportunity to defeat Murphy.

NIALA: Given everything you've said, how significant is this for New Jersey politics?

NANCY: I think this is huge because the narrative around Phil Murphy going into this election was that he was the most progressive governor in the country kind of cementing this idea of New Jersey being more like a California or more like a Massachusetts. And I think this sets that back on its heels, that moderate, middle-class, largely white suburbanites still are a force in this state and and they have to be reckoned with.

NIALA: So how significant is this you think for the rest of the country?

NANCY: You know, Phil Murphy rolled out an agenda over the last four years that is very, very similar to Biden's agenda, the budget bill and the infrastructure bill and everything that he's trying to do, he being Biden. Murphy did a lot of that for New Jersey. And so now, I think with a glide to victory, you could have a democratic party feel energized and confident that you can win elections by, by being progressive. And now I think legitimately there are going to be real questions about whether Murphy was a little bit out of step with your average every day you know, middle-class moderate voter in New Jersey.

NIALA: Nancy Solomon covers New Jersey politics for WNYC joining us from Maplewood, New Jersey. Thank you, Nancy.

NANCY: Thanks.

NIALA: Democrats announced this week that they've reached a deal on lowering Medicare prescription drug prices. It's an issue Democrats have been running on for years and it could now find its way into president Biden's Build Back Better social spending plan. Axios’ health care reporter Caitlin Owens has been tracking these negotiations and is here now with what you need to know. Hey Caitlin,


NIALA: So this deal hasn't been finalized yet, but what's important about what's in it so far?

CAITLIN: There's three main pillars of this deal. So one is Medicare negotiations, which is where the government can negotiate with drug companies over the price of drugs. That was significantly moderated from what Democrats had originally proposed, but some form of Medicare negotiations it's still in this package. Um, the second part of this is capping how much drug companies can raise their prices in a year. That is both in Medicare and in the commercial market. And then the third part is a redesign of Medicare Part D, which is the benefit that covers drugs that seniors buy at the counter. One very significant piece of that is limiting what seniors will pay out of pocket for their drugs.

NIALA: So Caitlin, this is a lot of, uh, bill texts that you're going through, that you just got. What are you going to be looking for? What questions do you have?

CAITLIN: At the end of the day I think what matters most here is how this will affect what people pay for their drugs, you know, especially seniors, people who are diabetic and need insulin, those insulin costs are going to be kept. There will be people, especially people who take really expensive drugs, who benefit immensely from this. But I am eager to see what experts say the kind of more comprehensive set of implications are

NIALA: Axios’ healthcare reporter, Caitlin Owens. Thank you, Caitlin.

CAITLIN: Thank you.

NIALA: More than a billion people around the world are celebrating the South Asian holiday of Diwali today - as captured by one YouTuber in India.


The multi-day festival — a celebration of light over darkness — is practiced by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhist communities. But the number of fireworks set off for the holiday has often caused severe air pollution problems in India. Last year — despite a ban on fireworks — Delhi suffered some of its poorest air quality days ever during this time. So this year there’s another ban, and increasing calls to celebrate a Green Diwali -- without fireworks, reusing decorations, and giving plants as gifts.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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