According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the number of road deaths in 2020 rose by 7.2 percent from the previous year, reaching a 13-year high, even though people didn’t drive that much. But while NHTSA’s numbers paint a grim picture, they offer just a glimpse of what will be a historically bloody year of driving.
In 2020, a total of 38,680 people died in car accidents, the highest number since 2007. But it’s worse than it sounds, as mileage in the US has fallen by 13 percent. That means every mile someone drove last year was more dangerous than the year before.
The Americans heeded the call to “stay at home” and drove less during this pandemic year. But those who did get behind the wheel showed more reckless behaviors, such as drinking and driving, speeding and failing to buckle up. But while this certainly raises questions about our judgment as drivers, it also sheds a sharp light on the hidden dangers in our country’s road network.
“It is mind-boggling and extremely frustrating to see the massive loss of life from COVID, exacerbated by preventable road accidents,” Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director of external engagement at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), said in a statement.
NHTSA found that fatalities increased in most major categories, including passenger car occupants (5 percent increase), motorcyclists (9 percent increase) and cyclists (5 percent increase). The number of pedestrian deaths in 2020 – 6,205 – was flat compared to 2019, which is still alarming given that that year was one of the deadliest for pedestrians in 30 years.
These estimates are: actually quite conservative, as fatalities in driveways, parking lots or private roads are excluded. Also, if someone dies more than 30 days after their crash, it doesn’t count. That means there aren’t as many as 1,000 deaths every year, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), a 108-year-old nonprofit that focuses on health and safety in the US.
Based on the NSC’s criteria, last year was even worse than the government is willing to admit, with an estimated total of 42,060 road deaths, an 8 percent increase from 2019. This also takes into account a similar decline in the total number. vehicle kilometers traveled compared to 2019.
There is enough anecdotal evidence to support this claim of more reckless driving. A report from the GHSA last year noted that police in Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska and Utah clocked drivers traveling over 100 mph on highways, while in New York City, automated speed cameras issued early 24,765 speeding tickets on March 27, 2020. in the lockdown, which was almost double the number spent daily a month earlier.
But the rise in reckless driving may say more about road design in the U.S. than it does about Americans’ skills as drivers, said Greg Shill, an associate professor at the University of Iowa College of Law and a faculty member at the National Advanced Driving Simulator.
Many traffic experts in the US assume that wide roads are safer. This relates to the concept of “induced demand”, where road widening projects encourage more people to drive, thus not improving congestion. In a year with fewer cars, those wide roads proved dangerously attractive to many motorists.
“I’d call it the monkey foot of highway engineering,” he said. “Road engineers got their wish (free-flowing traffic, ‘Level of Service A’ in parlance), but with it came an extraordinary increase in the number of deaths per mile traveled.”
It is very difficult to roll back these projects once they are completed. Racial justice advocates are calling for some urban highways to be demolished altogether, but more in the name of reinvesting in communities of color destroyed by racist highway projects, and less in the name of safety. And Vision Zero, the project to reduce road deaths to zero, has been criticized as an empty slogan with no proven success.
Shill argues that better public transportation is needed to get people out of their cars, but in a pandemic year, when public transportation across the country plummeted, it is unclear what benefit better subways and buses would have brought.
There are plenty of other ideas: automated speed enforcement; reform the Handbook of Uniform Traffic Controllers for Streets and Highways, the 862 page manual for road signs and signals; and speed limits in densely populated areas to 20 or 25 mph.
“I don’t want to overdo it, because turning a transport system over is like turning a battleship,” Shill said. “But the new administration and USDOT leadership seem genuinely concerned about this and are working on it. I’m curious what they do.”
But the chances of progress in the short term are slim to none, and in the meantime more than 100 people die in car accidents every day. We internalized these deaths as the necessary trade-off to have the freedom to ride as much as we want. And in a year when we didn’t drive that much, those costs became visible to everyone.