Even though the streets, highways, and parking lots across the US were empty due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the number of road fatalities inexplicably rose in 2020. According to data sourced from the National Safety Council (NSC), the United States experienced a 20% increase in the approximate mileage death rate between January and June in 2020 when compared to the same six-month period in 2019. This estimated increase is the highest spike that NSC has calculated for a six-month duration since 1999.
Given the clear stay-at-home orders, you might be wondering how that’s possible?
After all, due to the pandemic, Americans drove a lot less in the first six months of 2020. The number of vehicle miles traveled by drivers decreased by 16.6%. The decrease in numbers was far more pronounced in New York.
According to NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation and Sam Schwartz Engineering’s report on transportation patterns during the COVID-19 response, NYC drivers traveled 93% less in April 2020 compared to the start of the year. By June, road traffic was back to 70% to 80% of the normal volume. Even though the number of miles driven in most states remained 13% lower than the previous year, death rates continued to skyrocket.
Road Fatalities in 2020
The decrease in road traffic did lead to an overall decrease in road fatalities in the US in 2020. As compared to 2019, there were 302 fewer deaths during April through June in 2020. However, since the overall traffic volume decreased significantly compared to 2019, the traffic fatality rate rose from 1.06 in the first six months of 2019 to 1.25 in the first six months of 2020. The traffic fatality rate is calculated as the number of road fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles driven. The fatality rate hasn’t been this high for over a decade. From the second quarter, April till June, this rate was even higher at 1.42.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths also spiked to 17% in June, while the fatality rate spiked to 34.4%. June marked the first month since the COVID-19 pandemic that both the number of death and the road fatality rate increased in a single month.This spike happened despite the fact that the country had experienced a leveling off and a small decline in overall fatalities after 2017.
Road Fatality Rate in Different States
NSC collects fatality data monthly from all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. It uses the data secured from the National Center for Health Statistics to include deaths that occur within a year and on private and public roadways, such as parking lots and highways.
According to this data, here are seven states that experienced a notable spike in road fatalities through the first six months of 2020:
- Vermont —experienced a whopping 91%increase with 10 more fatalities than the past year
- Connecticut — experienced a 44% rise in the rate with 45 more deaths
- District of Columbia — witnessed a 42% increase with 5 more deaths than last year
- South Dakota — experienced a 34% rise in the rate with 11 more deaths
- Rhode Island— witnessed a 31% increase with 8 more deaths
- Arkansas — experienced a 21% increase with 51 more deaths
- Missouri — witnessed an 18% rise and 68 more deaths
Reasons for the Spike in Road Fatality Rate
So, what led to the inexplicable increase in road fatalities? According to NHTSA’s researchers, driving patterns and driver behavior turned risky and reckless during the pandemic. Drivers failed to wear seat belts to ensure road safety, started driving rashly, and drove under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
In a study conducted on gravely or fatally injured drivers across five trauma centers from mid-March to mid-July, approximately two-thirds of the drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including Marijuana, alcohol, and opioid. The use of opioids by drivers almost doubled after mid-March, while the number of drivers testing positive for Marijuana increased by nearly 50%.
Instead of practicing restraint and following the tenets of safe driving, and encouraging their loved ones to do the same, people resorted to driving under the influence and taking risks with their own lives and the lives of everyone else on the road as well.
According to NHTSA’s report, the reason for the spike in road fatalities is twofold –the type of drivers stepping out of their houses despite stay-at-home orders and the sort of driving behavior that was prompted by the empty streets. While risk-averse individuals decided to stay home and remain off-the-roads by restricting their out-of-home activities, individuals who are less risk-averse remained on the roads and engaged in their usual driving habits.
This deadly combination of nearly-empty roads and risky drivers resulted in faster driving, which made the streets less safe. After all, faster travel increases the chances of accidents and fatalities. The reckless drivers engaged in other risky behavior as well, such as showing negligence in safe driving practices and not wearing seatbelts.
The Bottom Line
The US experienced an increase in road fatality rate in the first half of 2020 despite the government-imposed lockdown implemented due to COVID-19. The number of road fatalities increased because the empty roads brought out rash driving tendencies in individuals who are less risk-averse. People drove rashly, without seatbelts, and under the influence, which led to more fatalities.
Now that things are slowly moving toward the new normal, it’s high time that the officials implement more stringent road safety rules to prevent such an alarming increase in fatality rate in the future.