Nearly 43,000 people died on US roads last year, agency says
DETROIT — Nearly 43,000 people were killed on U.S. roads last year, the highest number in 16 years as Americans returned to the roads after the coronavirus pandemic forced many to stay at home.
The 10.5% jump over 2020 numbers was the largest percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its fatality data collection system in 1975. Exacerbating the problem was a persistence of risky driving behaviors during the pandemic, such as speeding and less frequent use of seat belts, as people began to venture out more in 2021 for out-of-state and other road trips, analysts said.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said America faces a crisis on its roads. The safety administration called on state and local governments, drivers, and safety advocates to work together to reverse the rising death rate.
“Our nation has taken a dangerous and deadly step backwards in traffic safety and impaired driving,” said MADD National President Alex Otte, who urged strong public-private efforts akin to the seat belt and air bag public safety campaigns of the 1990s to stem reckless driving. “More families and more communities are feeling the crushing magnitude of this crisis on our roads.”
Preliminary figures released Tuesday by the agency show that 42,915 people died in traffic crashes last year, up from 38,824 in 2020. Final figures will be available in the fall.
Forty-four states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had increases in traffic deaths in 2021 compared to the previous year, led by Texas, California and Florida. Wyoming, Nebraska and Wisconsin were the worst affected, as was Maryland, Maine, and Maryland. Rhode Island’s figures remained unchanged.
Americans drove about 325 billion more miles last year, 11.2% higher than in 2020, which contributed to the increase.
Nearly 118 people died in U.S. traffic crashes every day last year, according to the agency’s figures. The Governors Highway Safety Association, a group of state traffic safety officials, blamed the increase on dangerous behavior such as speeding, driving while impaired by alcohol and drugs, and distracted driving, as well as “roads designed for speed instead of safety.”
The combination, the group said, “has wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths.”
Deaths last year increased in almost all types of crashes, NHTSA reported. Crashes occurring during out of state travel jumped 15%, compared to 2020, many of them on rural interstate roads or access roads off city highways. Fatalities in urban areas and deaths in multi-vehicle crashes each rose 16%. Pedestrian deaths were up 13%.
By age, fatalities among drivers 65 and older rose 14%, reversing a declining trend seen among them in 2020. Deaths also surged among middle-aged drivers, led by those 35-to-44, which rose 15%. Kids under age 16 saw traffic fatalities increase 6%.
By vehicle, fatalities involving at least one big truck were up 13%, while motorcycle deaths were up 9% and deaths of bicyclists rose 5%. Each of the fatalities from speeding drivers and alcohol-related crashes was up 5%.
Government estimates show the rate of road deaths declined slightly from 2020. There were 1. 33 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 1. 34 in 2020. NHTSA reported that the fatality rate increased in the first quarter last year but declined over the remainder of the year.
Traffic deaths began to spike in 2020. The NHTSA blames reckless driving for the rise in pandemic deaths, citing behavioral research that shows speeding and not wearing a seatbelt are more common than ever. Before 2020, the number of fatalities had fallen for three straight years.
The nominee for the post of Deputy NHTSA Administrator by the Biden administration, Steven Cliff, stated that the roadway crisis is urgently preventable. Cliff stated that “We will redouble safety efforts, and it is necessary for everyone — state and local governments and safety advocates, drivers, and automakers, to join us.” “All of our lives depend on it.”
Buttigieg pointed to a national strategy unveiled earlier this year aimed at reversing the trend. He stated earlier that his department would provide federal guidance and billions of dollars in grants under President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law. This will encourage states and localities, as well as federal assistance, to lower speed limits and adopt safer road design like dedicated bike and bus lanes and better lighting. The department also recommends speed cameras as a way to enforce speed limits more effectively than police traffic stops.
The department stated Tuesday that it has opened its first round of applications to the program. The program will spend up to $6 million over five years to reduce crashes and deaths in local communities. The Transportation Department is making progress to reduce the deaths. However, many of the steps will take years to complete, according to Michael Brooks, the acting executive director of Center for Auto Safety.
NHTSA has regulations in place to require electronic emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems for all new light vehicles and to require automatic braking for heavy trucks. If an object is in the vehicle’s path, automatic emergency braking can slow down or stop it.
The agency is also requiring automakers install systems that notify rear-seat passengers if the safety belts aren’t properly fastened.
“Responding to this is difficult,” Brooks said. It takes a lot to find the right strategies to address these problems. They have a lot of work ahead of them. “
Yen reported from Austin, Texas.
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