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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.

Go deeper

Jan 8, 2021 - Health

Biden to release nearly all available COVID-19 vaccine doses to the public

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden plans to release nearly all available coronavirus vaccine doses when he takes office, CNN reports.

Why it matters: Releasing nearly all doses would allow more people to get vaccinated with at least one dose. At the moment, the Trump administration is withholding half of U.S. vaccine production to ensure recipients receive their second dose, which is required by both the Moderna and Pfizer shots to ensure 95% efficacy.

Updated 1 min ago - World

Pentagon: 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened preparedness to deploy" to eastern Europe in case NATO activates its rapid-response force over tensions with Russia, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Why it matters: No decisions have been made to deploy U.S. forces, but the heightened alert level will allow the military to rapidly shore up NATO's eastern flank in the event that Russia invades Ukraine. The Pentagon warned that Russia has shown "no signs of de-escalating," and continues to amass troops on Ukraine's borders.

Alabama's new congressional map rejected by federal judges

The Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Federal judges on Monday night blocked Alabama's newly drawn congressional map and ordered the Republican-led State Legislature to create a new one that includes two districts, rather than the planned one.

Why it matters: "Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress," the panel of three judges wrote in their ruling.