May 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

U.S. traffic deaths hit highest level in 16 years

Percentage change in traffic fatalities from 2020 to 2021, by state
Data: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Cartogram: Axios Visuals

An estimated 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2021, the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2005, according to data released Tuesday from the Department of Transportation.

By the numbers: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the number represents a 10.5% increase from 2020, when 38,824 deaths were reported.

  • Compared to the 36,355 fatalities reported in 2019, prior to the pandemic, the number of traffic fatalities increased by 18% last year.

Zoom in: 44 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are all projected to have had increases in the numbers of traffic deaths, NHTSA found.

  • Texas is estimated to have had the highest amount of deaths at 4,573, followed by California and Florida at 4,258 and 3,753, respectively.

Driving the news: "An increase in dangerous driving — speeding, distracted driving, drug- and alcohol-impaired driving, not buckling up — during the pandemic, combined with roads designed for speed instead of safety, has wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths," said Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Catch up fast: Earlier this week, the NHTSA released $740 million in funding for states and communities to "implement programs" to address risky driving.

Between the lines: Safety advocates say street design is a big contributor: U.S. roads prioritize the speedy movement of automobiles over other road users.

  • A new study shows that asphalt art is one way to slow traffic and make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Joann Muller: Ironically, assisted-driving technology is supposed to help make roads safer, but we're not seeing that yet.

What they're saying: "We face a crisis on America's roadways that we must address together," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

  • "This crisis on our roads is urgent and preventable," said Steven Cliff, NHTSA's deputy administrator.
  • "We will redouble our safety efforts, and we need everyone — state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers — to join us. All of our lives depend on it," Cliff added.

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