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U.S. Traffic Deaths Drop, But Fatality Rate Soars

Lockdowns may have prompted more reckless drivers to hit the road anyway.


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Traffic deaths on American roads continue to fall, but this year’s fatality rate is soaring, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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The number of fatalities last year dropped 2% to 36,100 in spite of a 1% increase in miles driven, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. The combination dropped the number of U.S. fatalities per 100 million miles driven in 2019 to a five-year low of 1.10.

So far, so good. But this year, it been a different story.


Stay-home orders intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 caused the number of miles driven to plunge 16% in the first half of the year. Traffic deaths fell too, as you’d expect. But they declined by only 2%.

The result? The U.S. fatality rate in January-June zoomed 18% to 1.25 per million miles driven—the worst in at least a dozen years.

It was uglier at the monthly level. The worst of it came in March-June, when lockdowns were at their peak.

January’s death rate was 1.04, lower than the same month last year, part of a downward trend that began nearly four years earlier. Then it all went wrong. By April, the fatality rate was at 1.34. It hit 1.43 in May and 1.47 in June.

Risky Business

What happened? NHTSA says drivers who were still on the road during the lockdowns got significantly more reckless. They drove faster, sometimes extremely so. Fewer drivers wore seatbelts.

“We’ve never seen trends like this,” Deputy Administrator James Owens told reporters. The Governors Highway Safety Assn. adds that drivers who didn’t stay home during the stay-at-home orders may have been egged on by nearly deserted roads to take more risks behind the wheel.

Crash victims also were more likely to be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A separate NHTSA study on drug and alcohol use says that, between mid-March and mid-July, about two-thirds of crash victims they treated tested positive for at least one drug.

Cases of opioid use nearly doubled to 14%, and those involving marijuana (33%) were greater than those involving alcohol (28%).

Final Take

NHTSA is hesitant to put too fine a point on preliminary data. But its evidence hints that people already prone to risky behavior were more likely to blow off orders to stay home and hit the road anyway.

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