Feb 28, 2022 - Economy

Why traffic deaths spiked more in the U.S. during COVID

Percentage change in traffic fatalities in 2020 compared to the prior three years
Data: International Transport Forum; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

The United States is rethinking its approach to transportation safety amid a surge in traffic deaths during the pandemic, when other developed countries saw a decline.

Why it matters: American roads have been getting deadlier, with motorist and pedestrian fatalities rising at a record pace, a trend that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calls a "national crisis."

  • An estimated 31,720 people died in crashes through the first nine months of 2021, up 12% compared to the same period in 2020, U.S. data shows.
  • That's on top of a 7.2% increase in deaths seen in 2020.

Between the lines: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety wanted to find out why traffic deaths surged in the U.S. during the pandemic, even though data showed people were driving less.

What they found: While most drivers reduced their driving during health-related shutdowns, a small proportion (4%) drove more, and those were younger and disproportionately male — a statistically riskier driver group than the average population.

  • Those drivers also were more likely to report engaging in risky behaviors like speeding, texting, intentionally running a red light and changing lanes aggressively, AAA's study found.
  • They were also more likely to be not wearing a seat belt or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • “Our research finds that higher-risk motorists accounted for a greater share of drivers during the pandemic than before it,” said Dr. David Yang, the foundation's executive director.
  • “Safety-minded individuals drove less, while many who increased their driving tended to engage in riskier behaviors behind the wheel.”

What to watch: Buttigieg recently announced a new approach to road safety that's similar to what other countries are already doing.

  • The so-called "safe systems approach" uses layers of redundant protection to reduce deaths, explained Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
  • To reduce crashes caused by speeding, for example, the U.S. might work with states to set more data-driven speed limits, add "traffic calming measures" like speed bumps or roundabouts and enforce speeding laws more consistently.
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation said it will also set new standards for technologies such as automatic emergency braking and will tap more than $10 billion in funding provided in the bipartisan infrastructure law for road safety and behavioral research.
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