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Risk-Taking Drove Spike in U.S. Traffic Accident Deaths, Despite Coronavirus Shutdowns

Federal safety officials are blaming risky driving behaviors for a spike in traffic fatalities across the United States last year, even though there were far fewer vehicles on the road due to widespread coronavirus shutdowns.

“Preliminary data tells us that during the national health emergency, fewer Americans drove, but those who did took more risks and had more fatal crashes,” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in an open letter addressed to the nation’s drivers.

2020 Traffic Accidents Claimed Over 28,000 Lives

While final numbers won’t be available until the spring, the agency estimates that 28,190 people died in traffic crashes from January through September of 2020, up from 26,941 in the same period of 2019.

Traffic deaths were up 0.6% during the first quarter of 2020 but fell 1.1% in the second quarter as coronavirus lockdowns kept motorists at home. Fatalities spiked 13.1% from July through September. In total, 11,260 people died on the nation’s roads in the third quarter of 2020, up from 9,953 in the same three-month period in 2019.

The fatality rate jumped to 1.48 deaths per 100 million miles traveled as vehicle miles traveled declined 14.5% from 2019 levels in the first nine months of the year.

Traffic Enforcement Also Declined During Pandemic Shutdowns

The decrease in traffic volume that resulted from the coronavirus shutdowns likely encouraged motorists to take more chances on the roads last year. But it appears risk-taking continued even as volume increased when restrictions eased.

“We think the big culprit is speeding,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told the Associated Press.

“A big factor here is the lack of enforcement. We are hearing from many states that traffic stops have declined during COVID-19,” he continued. “Drivers feel like they can speed and get away with it.”

According to the NHTSA:

  • Average vehicle speeds in major metropolitan areas rose 22% in 2020.
  • 65% of drivers treated at trauma centers after serious accidents had drugs or alcohol in their systems last year compared to 50.6% before the pandemic.
  • Double the average number of people were thrown from vehicles during crashes, suggesting more weren’t wearing seatbelts.

“Most fatal crashes are linked to risky behavior,” the NHTSA added. “If you fail to obey the speed limit, to wear your seat belt, and to drive sober, your risk for a crash, and a fatal one at that, goes up. The law enforcement and EMS community across the country have made your road safety a priority—but they are already stretched thin and at risk. Please do not further burden them with your poor driving choices.”

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