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'Tragic': Driving Was Down In 2020, But Traffic Fatality Rates Surged

A man crosses a nearly empty street in San Francisco, on March 17, 2020. Despite a reduction in driving last year, road fatalities increased, according to the National Safety Council.
Jeff Chiu
A man crosses a nearly empty street in San Francisco, on March 17, 2020. Despite a reduction in driving last year, road fatalities increased, according to the National Safety Council.

Driving was markedly down in 2020, yet a new report found a surprising and alarming statistic: Traffic deaths actually rose last year.

The National Safety Council (NSC) says deaths from motor vehicles rose 8% last year, with as many as 42,060 people dying in vehicle crashes.

When comparing traffic deaths to the number of miles driven, the rate of fatalities rose 24% — the highest spike in nearly a century, NSC says.

"It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn't reap any safety benefits," Lorraine Martin, NSC's president and CEO, said in a statement.

The non-profit organization estimates fatalities from motor vehicles every year, tallying deaths on public roads as well as parking lots and driveways.

The group advocates for lower speed limits, stricter seat belt laws and expanded use of driver-assistance features like automatic emergency braking, among other changes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a government agency, has not yet released its analysis of deaths in 2020, but its preliminary results for the first 9 months of the year show similar trends, with total deaths and death rates both up noticeably.

NHTSA said it was "too soon to speculate on the contributing factors" of the uptick.

Martin, the president of NSC, says her organization has not finished its analysis of the causes either.

But she told NPR that it's clear that with fewer cars on the road, risky driving behaviors went up.

"And we know what those risky driving behaviors are, even though we haven't done all the analysis of these specific crashes," she says. "We know it's speeding. We know it's driving without a seatbelt. And we know it's driving impaired ... and distracted."

Alarm bells about that risky behavior started sounding early in the pandemic. For instance, multiple data sources indicated a noticeable increase in speeding as emptier roads tempted drivers to stomp on the accelerator.

Arity, a mobility data analytics company that spun off from insurance giant Allstate, reports that speeding has stuck around as driving resumes.

"We are still seeing increased speeds on the road even as miles driven returns to normal, particularly during morning and afternoon rush hours," the group wrote in February.

And people aren't just speeding a little — they're speeding a lot. Drivers hitting speeds of greater than 80 miles per hour increased through most of 2020, Arity found.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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