The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its early estimate of traffic fatalities for the first nine months of 2021. NHTSA projects that an estimated 31,720 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes from January through September 2021, an increase of approximately 12% from the 28,325 fatalities projected for the first nine months of 2020. The projection is the highest number of fatalities during the first nine months of any year since 2006 and the highest percentage increase during the first nine months in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history.
The sharp rise in traffic related deaths can be attributed to several factors: Vehicle miles traveled during this period increased by 13% while speeding was up and seat belt use declined compared to pre-pandemic times. According to the Federal Highway Administration, vehicle miles traveled in the first nine months of 2021 increased by about 244 billion miles, an 11.7% increase from the same time in 2020. The early estimate report also provides the first look at state-level traffic fatality estimates during the pandemic. Compared to 2020, NHTSA projects that during the first nine months of 2021, fatalities increased in 38 states, remained flat in two states, and decreased in 10 states and the District of Columbia.
America’s highways, streets and rural roads are more dangerous than ever before. In 2020, despite millions of workers staying home and the amount of traffic decreasing, there were an estimated 38,650 U.S. auto-related accidents which was a 7% increase from 2019. Daredevil speeding has increased and in California nearly 28,500 tickets were issued to drivers topping 100 mph.
A basic reason for so many lethal crashes is that when highways and roads became much emptier because of Covid, it became easier for drivers to accelerate to lethal speeds. The pandemic also reversed decades of progress instilling safe driving habits. Fewer drivers are buckling seat belts, more are driving while using their phones, and as alcohol sales and drug overdoses have soared during the pandemic, so have DUIs.
No corner of the country has been spared. U.S. rural areas continue to suffer a disproportionate number of crashes, mostly due to there being fewer medians and turning lanes. But urban areas certainly have felt the plague of reckless driving, too. In New York City, which introduced reforms in 2014 aimed at eliminating traffic deaths within a decade, traffic-related deaths shot up in 2020 to at least 243–the highest toll since those programs took effect.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the federal government’s first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy, a roadmap to address the national crisis in roadway fatalities and serious injuries. “This is a national crisis. We cannot and must not accept these deaths as an inevitable part of everyday life,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “The good news is we now have a strategy, as well as the resources and programs to deliver it, thanks to the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The National Roadway Safety Strategy is America’s first-ever national, comprehensive plan to significantly reduce deaths and injuries on our roads.”
“We have to change a culture that accepts as inevitable the loss of tens of thousands of people in traffic crashes,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator. “This will require a transformational and collaborative approach to safety on our nation’s roads.”
Speed is the primary cause of the sharp rise in traffic related deaths. The simplest solution is to get drivers to slow down. Most American roadways are engineered to maximize speed, and Virginia recently raised the threshold for reckless driving from 80 to 85 mph. More than 20 state traffic-safety bills proposed in the past two years went nowhere because legislators feared a political backlash from motorists. But lowering speed limits, enforcing traffic laws, and implementing “traffic calming” measures such as speed bumps all have been proven to reduce accidents.
Lewis Van Blois is a California and nationally Certified Trial Lawyer located in Oakland, California, representing severely injured persons and families in wrongful death cases caused by traffic-related accidents.
R. Lewis Van Blois
The Van Blois Law Firm
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