Deaths on U.S. Roads Increased 8% in 2020, Despite Drops in Traffic and Stay-Home Orders: Report

According to new statistics about roadway deaths in 2020, the number of highway accident deaths increased by an estimated 8%, despite a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and local stay-home orders.

The National Safety Council (NSC) released updated traffic fatality statistics this month, indicating that there were more than 42,000 deaths on U.S. roads last year, marking the highest calculated year-over-year increase in roadway fatalities in 96 years.

When compared to the previous calendar year, researchers found the total number of motor-vehicle deaths was up 8% in 2020, compared to 39,107 reported in 2019. Of the deaths recorded, only nine states saw a drop, while eight states and the District of Columbia witnessed more than a 15% increase.

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The report notes this drastic increase occurred at the same time the estimated total vehicle miles traveled for 2020 decreasing to 2,830 billion, which is a 13% drop compared to 3,260 billion in 2019.

Due to the decrease in miles traveled and such a significant increase in fatalities recorded, the estimated mileage death rate skyrocketed to 1.49 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up 24% when compared to 2019’s rate of 1.20.

While no significant increase was noted for auto accident injury rates, researchers found there were still more than 4.7 million serious injuries requiring medical treatment, contributing to the $474.4 billion motor vehicle accident costs in 2020.

No specific reason for the increase in roadway fatalities was offered in the report in the report. However, private research companies have suggested open and cleared highways allowed drivers to engage in riskier behaviors and travel at higher speeds.

A study released in April 2020 by the analytics company INRIX, which specializes in roadway behavior, stated the average speed of traffic on major highways increased by as much as 75%, as the volume of traffic dropped dramatically nationwide during the early period of the lockdowns. The firm warned that the higher speeds could lead to deadlier crashes and more serious injuries.

New York City transportation officials reported a more than 60% increase in the number of speeding tickets issued by speed camera traps in March 2020, when compared to a year earlier, and Washington D.C. StreetLight Data recorded a 20% increase of speed camera tickets issued. In D.C., officials reported the amount of drivers violating speed limits by going 21-25 mph over the limit increased by nearly 40%.

By late 2020, a report was published in the October issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention, finding the rate of fatal motor vehicle accidents increased from 3.4 per day before lockdown to 3.7 per day after the lockdowns.

Researchers theorize several possible contributing factors play into the increasing fatality rates, such as open and cleared highways allowing drivers to speed and thus making accidents more deadly, changes in road safety campaigns, reduced levels of policing, and the increased speed of commercial vehicles without any change in volume.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) officials claim speeding is involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities annually, accounting for nearly 10,000 deaths in 2018 alone.

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