The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, has released sobering data about US traffic deaths. According to NHTSA analyses, although traffic fatalities were down in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, the fatality rate itself has gone up. Specifically, overall traffic deaths have declined 3.3% (a total of 8,870 deaths), while the fatality rate has increased to 1.42 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, a jump of 30% over Q2 2019’s numbers.
As the NHTSA notes, the second quarter of 2020 was “the height of the Covid-19 public health emergency,” during which overall traffic volume in the US “decreased by more than 16% in the first six months of 2020.” The agency suggests that the increased fatality rate might mean that while there are fewer drivers on the road, the drivers who remain are taking more risks. The NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator, James Owens, said in a statement: “Road safety is always our top priority, and while we are encouraged by today’s reports showing a continued decline in total fatalities in 2019 and into the first half of 2020, we are concerned by the trend since April showing an increased fatality rate… Now, more than ever, we should be watching ourselves for safe driving practices and encouraging others to do the same. It’s irresponsible and illegal to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, taking risks not only with one’s own life, but with the lives of others.”
The NHTSA’s study suggests a few behaviors that may be responsible for the uptick in fatalities. Drivers who stayed on the roads during pandemic-related lockdowns were responsible for “speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” Additionally, traffic data shows that “average speeds increased during the second quarter, and examples of extreme speeds became more common, while the evidence suggests that fewer people involved in crashes used their seat belts.”
A study released by the NHTSA examined “seriously or fatally injured road users” at five trauma centers, concluding that “between mid-March and mid-July almost two-thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids.” While marijuana usage reportedly experienced a spike of 50%, drivers in the study who tested positive for opioids “nearly doubled after mid-March.” A Reuters article about the NHTSA data identifies another reason for the increase in reckless driving, citing the report’s observation that “It is possible that drivers’ perception that they may be caught breaking a law was reduced.”
Most traffic categories saw decreased fatalities from 2018 to 2019, according to the NHTSA. Passenger vehicle occupant fatalities decreased 2.8%; motorcyclist fatalities decreased 0.5%; pedestrian fatalities decreased 2.7%; and cyclist fatalities decreased 2.9%. Crash fatalities that involved “at least one large truck showed relatively no change,” with 5,006 fatalities in 2018 and 5,005 in 2019. The NHTSA’s reports are available via its website here.
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