Traffic Deaths Rise in Q1 Despite Decline in Miles Traveled

police lights and fire truck
ollo/Getty Images

[Ensure you have all the info you need in these unprecedented times. Subscribe now.]

Risky driving behaviors that have become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic were the primary contributor to a 10.5% increase in total fatalities during the first quarter of 2021, despite fewer vehicle miles traveled, according to an “early estimates” report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA estimates that 8,730 people died in total motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first three months of 2021, up from 7,900 fatalities estimated for the first quarter of 2020. The new report said the number of vehicle miles traveled during the first quarter of this year decreased by 2.1% during the first three months of 2021, or about 14.9 billion miles fewer compared to the first quarter of 2020.

“Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there were marked increases in fatalities, and the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2020. This trend has continued into 2021,” the report said.

Early Estimate Motor Vehicl... by Transport Topics

“These early estimates suggest the driving patterns and behaviors the agency reported in 2020, which changed significantly from previous years, continue to prevail and that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” NHTSA said in a statement.

The report does not break down truck-involved fatalities, but the number is included in the overall traffic statistics. NHTSA’s early estimates for 2020, first reported in June, showed that while overall fatalities on U.S. roadways increased by 7%, they were actually down 2% in large truck-related fatal crashes.

The report attributed the lower VMT trend that stretches to 2020 at least in part to “stay-at-home” orders that began in the early days of the pandemic.

“The stay-at-home orders started in mid-March 2020, followed by the first full month of stay-at-home measures that were in effect during April,” the report said. “During May [2020] some states began to reopen in some way while almost all states partially reopened by June. After June each state continued to adapt their local and statewide COVID-19 guidelines and assess specific reopening and potential reclosing efforts accordingly.”

“The fatality rates per 100 million VMT for the first quarter of 2021 increased to 1.26 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from the projected rate of 1.12 fatalities in the same time last year,” the report said.

To examine the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, NHTSA said the quarterly projections of fatalities, fatality rates and VMT are further split into the respective monthly estimates for 2020 and 2021.

“We must address the tragic loss of life we saw on the roads in 2020 by taking a transformational and collaborative approach to safety,” said Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s acting administrator. “We are working closely with our safety partners to address risky driving behaviors such as speeding, impaired driving and failing to buckle up.”

In June, preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration showed overall vehicle miles traveled in 2020 decreased by about 430.2 billion miles, or about a 13.2% decline. The fatality rate for 2020 was 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from 1.11 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2019.

“While Americans drove less in 2020 due to the pandemic, NHTSA’s early estimates show that an estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes — the largest projected number of fatalities since 2007,” the agency said.

“The surge in motor vehicle crash fatalities must serve as an urgent call to action for Congress and the Biden administration,” Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement. “Requirements and performance standards for proven vehicle safety technology could be saving tens of thousands of lives each year. The needless deaths on our roads must — and can — be stopped.”

Despite a drop in roadway traffic last year during the pandemic, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s Operation Safe Driver Week in July selected speeding as its focus due to an estimated increase in traffic fatalities last year. According to the National Safety Council’s preliminary estimates, the death rate on roads last year increased 24% over the previous 12-month period, despite miles driven dropping 13%. The increase in the rate of death is the highest estimated year-over-year jump NSC has calculated in 96 years.

Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing below or go here for more info: