2020 Had Highest Number of Traffic Fatalities Since 2007: NHTSA Reports

While there were fewer overall vehicle miles traveled and fewer accidents in 2020, more of them resulted in traffic fatalities.

Despite drastic drops in traffic during the height of COVID-19 “stay home” orders, 2020 was one of the deadliest years on record for traffic fatalities, according to data from federal safety officials.

Throughout the pandemic, Americans may have driven less, but those who were traveling faced much more dangerous roads, according to annual traffic crash data recently released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The report compiled data on automobile accidents within the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, combining sources like the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the Crash Report Sampling System (CRSS).

The data found that 38,824 lives lost in traffic crashes nationwide in 2020, which was 2,469 more roadway deaths than in 2019. This was the largest number of motor vehicle fatalities reported in a single year since 2007.

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In contrast to the rise in automobile accident fatalities, the number of overall crashes and non-fatal injuries declined. Police-reported crashes decreased by 22% in comparison to 2019, and the estimated number of non-fatal injuries went down by 17%. However, drivers engaging in risky behaviors like speeding, driving under the influence, and driving without a seatbelt played a large part in the recent rise in roadway deaths.

Fatalities due to speeding-related auto accidents were up by 17% in comparison to 2019. Alcohol-impaired and unrestrained passenger vehicle auto accident deaths both rose by 14% in comparison to the previous year. Combined, these risky behaviors contributed to 45% of the total number of fatal car crashes reported in 2020.

Also noted in the NHTSA’s annual crash data for 2020 was a marked increase in pedestrian fatalities caused by automobiles. Bicyclist deaths increased more than 9%; the highest since 1987. Pedestrian deaths rose by nearly 4%; a high not seen since 1989.

Though the annual traffic crash data for 2020 was recently published, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) says it has been monitoring the increases in fatalities closely. To address the loss of life these increases represent, the DOT released The National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS)  in January 2022, which adopts the Safe System approach and lays out a redundant system to protect motorists using crash prevention that takes into account human mistakes and human vulnerability. Employing a five-pronged model to address safety: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and post-crash care with a goal to eliminate serious injuries and the rise in auto accident fatalities for all road users.


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