Car Crash Fatalities Surge During COVID-19 Pandemic. Why?

The most roadway deaths since 2007 have been recorded last year, a shocking 38,680. In light of the lesser amount of traffic during the pandemic, we’d expect less fatalities, instead the number has risen dramatically. Why?

“This was completely unprecedented,” said Ken Kolosh, a researcher at the nonprofit National Safety Council. “We didn’t know what was happening.” One possibility was that stressed-out Americans were releasing their anxieties on the wide-open roads. He guessed that fatal accidents would decline in 2021 when traffic returned.

But he was wrong. The latest evidence suggests that after decades of safety gains, the pandemic has made U.S. drivers more reckless — more likely to speed, drink or use drugs and leave their seatbelts unbuckled. Most drivers can agree that people have been driving much faster since the pandemic.

“I fear we’ve adopted some really unsafe driving habits, and they’re going to persist,” Kolosh said. “Our roads are less safe than they were pre-pandemic.” Some experts say that behavior on the road is likely a reflection of widespread feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. “We might decide: What does a seatbelt or another beer matter, anyway, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?” said Shannon Frattaroli, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The rise in motor vehicle deaths lines up with other pandemic-era trends: Alcohol sales have soared, drug overdoses have set new records, and homicides have seen their biggest increase on record.

Before the pandemic, safety on U.S. roadways had been improving for decades, thanks to enforcement of seatbelt laws and the advent of airbags, improved braking and stability control, and other safety features. Even as the number of people on the roads increased and many states raised their speed limits, annual fatalities fell from around 55,000 in 1970 to 36,096 in 2019.

Then came the 7.2% rise in 2020, followed by an 18% jump in the first six months of this year, based on preliminary figures from the federal government. What made last year’s increase so astonishing was that the total miles driven — an estimate calculated by sampling traffic on various roadways — fell by more than 13% as cities locked down and more people worked from home.

In one of the clearest indications of rising recklessness, fatal accidents involving just one vehicle also rose disproportionally. The data also show an outsized increase in deadly accidents involving speeding, illegal substances or a failure to wear a seatbelt.

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a Washington nonprofit representing agencies nationwide, suggested that people’s disregard for themselves and others on the road is part of a national decline in civility that accelerated during the pandemic.

“Anecdotally, we hear from governors’ offices around the country that it’s a symptom and a sign of the overall lack of consideration we’re showing for other citizens, whether it be wearing masks, or not getting vaccinated, or how we drive,” he said. “It’s very aggressive. It’s very selfish.”

In California, which saw a 5% increase in fatalities last year, Highway Patrol officers issued nearly 28,500 tickets for speeds over 100 mph, almost double the 2019 total. They arrested 232 people for reckless driving — a 150% rise — and are on pace to exceed that this year. Research based on crash investigations has shown that even a slight speed increase — say, from 50 mph to 56 mph — is enough to increase the driver’s risk of death.

Since the start of the pandemic, a larger share of accident victims — including those who survived — have been ejected from their vehicles, typically because they were not wearing seatbelts. The increase in ejections was seen just as lockdowns began. Men have accounted for a disproportionate share.

Making the roads even more dangerous is rising drug and alcohol use. In one survey, more than 7% of adults said they were more likely to drive while impaired than they were before the pandemic.

Federal researchers who looked at accidents in which drivers were killed or seriously injured found that the proportion who tested positive for opioids nearly doubled after the pandemic began. Marijuana use also rose considerably.

Finally, more drivers are distracted. Researchers used GPS and other data to determine that drivers used their phones more frequently after the pandemic began, and that the problem only worsened over time.

As for reducing traffic deaths, there has not been a unified response from authorities. Arizona, Arkansas and Georgia enacted legislation to crack down on street racing. Texas passed a law against “reckless driving exhibition,” or performing stunts and spinning for a crowd of spectators.

But other states have loosened their driving laws. In Virginia, drivers can now go up to 85 mph — rather than 80 mph — before being charged with reckless driving. Motorists in Maine convicted of criminal negligence that results in a driving-related death now have their licenses suspended one year instead of three.

And nationwide, more than two dozen traffic safety bills proposed in 2020 and 2021 fell flat.

The deaths continue. Traffic safety and your life is in your own hands. We all have a responsibility to ourselves, and to one another, to drive safely, prevent injury and death. It is our SOCIAL CONTRACT with one another, we trust one another to drive safely, pay attention, and not put each other at risk or injury or death. Think of each person as someone’s mother, father, husband, wife, or child – not just a frustrating vehicle that poses an obstacle to your destination.

As traffic collision and injury attorneys, we want to make the community safer and help prevent these types of injuries and devastating fatalities. Please drive with caution, drive slower, and drive with civility instead of anger, frustration, and rage. Keep your eyes on the road, and off the cell phone, or other distractions! Never drive impaired or intoxicated!

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