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Illustration by Security Management

Road Deaths Still on the Rise in 2021

Although 2020 already saw an increase in motor vehicle deaths, the first half of 2021 hosts an even higher number of fatalities as more people return to regular driving, according to a preliminary report from the National Safety Council (NSC). 

The preliminary estimates, which were released on 8 September, indicate that within the first six months of 2021 there has been a 16 percent increase in motor vehicle deaths. “This increase is a deadly trend that started last year during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and negates more than 15 years of progress in preventing death on U.S. roads,” the NSC said in a press release.  

During the first half of 2021, the fatality rate increased an additional 3 percent throughout the country. Although some states saw a decrease in the death rate, others rose more than 30 percent. The NSC listed that the top eight states with a more than 30 percent increase in motor vehicle deaths included South Dakota (51 percent), Oregon (51 percent), Minnesota (41 percent), Idaho (39 percent), Nevada (38 percent), Utah (36 percent), Vermont (33 percent), and Tennessee (30 percent). 

At the end of 2020, the council estimated that 42,000 people might have died on U.S. roads, a 24 percent increase despite the fact that people drove 13 percent fewer miles throughout the year.  

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was slightly more conservative. The NHTSA reported in June that although Americans drove less in 2020 due to efforts to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, fatalities rose to an estimated 38,680, which is still the highest number since 2007.

“NHTSA’s analysis shows that the main behaviors that drove this increase include: impaired driving, speeding, and failure to wear a seat belt,” the agency said in a press release. It also determined in its Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2020 report that traffic deaths involving passengers, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists also increased year-over-year from 2019. 

“NHTSA’s research suggests that, throughout the national public health emergency and associated lockdowns, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly, 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,” the agency said.  

These concerns were echoed by the NSC. Along with advocating for safer driving practices on an individual basis, such as distraction-free driving and keeping to the speed limit (speeding was a factor in more than 25 percent of all motor vehicle deaths), the NSC also specifically recommended drivers check for open recalls on their vehicles, that drivers and all passengers use a seat belt, and that people rely on either a sober driver or an alternative to driving if someone has been drinking.   

“In addition, NSC, along with several other roadway safety advocates, recently called on the Biden Administration to prioritize nominating a leader for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which hasn’t had a confirmed leader since 2017, and the Federal Highway Administration,” the press release said.  

In a report from the Insurance Research Council, data indicated that medical expenses linked to automobile injuries also increased, sometimes faster than the rate of inflation. “From 2007 to 2012, average claimed economic losses (which include expenses for medical care, lost wages, and other out-of-pocket expenditures) grew 8 percent annualized among personal injury protection (PIP) claimants,” the council said in a press release.