Pandemic paradox: Less driving, more traffic deaths

Accidents involving cars are one of the biggest sources of deaths in the US. The last year has seen a seeming paradox. While the pandemic resulted in fewer cars on the road and fewer miles driven the number of traffic-related accident fatalities actually increased.

It’s a public health crisis in any year, and somehow, the pandemic has only made it more acute. Even as Americans have been driving less in the past year or so, car crash deaths (including both occupants of vehicles and pedestrians) have surged.

Cars killed 42,060 people in 2020, up from 39,107 in 2019, according to a preliminary estimate from the National Safety Council (NSC), a nonprofit that focuses on eliminating preventable deaths.

That increase occurred even as the number of miles traveled by car decreased by 13 percent from the previous year. It was the biggest single-year spike in the US car fatality rate in nearly a century, and 2021 is on pace to be even worse.

Between January and June of this year, NSC reports that car fatalities increased by 16 percent from the same period last year, with areas as diverse as Texas and New York City reporting sharp increases. If the trend continues for the rest of the year, nationwide deaths would reach the highest level since 2006.

In a recent report on car fatality rates in OECD nations, the US ranked among the worst. Most of America’s peers have shown a clear downward trend in car fatalities over the past two decades: Belgium, France, Spain, and the Czech Republic all had per capita car death rates comparable to the US in 2000 and have since more than halved them. America’s fatality rate has decreased, too, over the same period but not by nearly as much, and it’s started to show signs of ticking back up in the past decade.

Some of the rise has been due to the increased deaths of pedestrians.

The past decade has seen an extraordinary increase in the number of people killed by cars while walking, so much so that pedestrians account for most of the recent increase in car fatalities. Cars killed 6,205 people walking in 2019, an increase of 51 percent from 4,109 in 2009, according to the NHTSA.

But for all the vulnerabilities of pedestrians in any given incident, most American car deaths don’t involve them. More common are crashes of two or more cars, or just one car crashing into an object like a tree, post, or storefront (something that happens with bizarre frequency in the US).

So what is the likely explanation for this?

According to several traffic experts I spoke with, the explanation for the 2020 fatality spike is relatively straightforward: With fewer cars on the road during quarantine, traffic congestion was all but eliminated, which emboldened people to drive at lethal speeds. Compared to 2019, many more drivers involved in fatal crashes also didn’t wear seat belts or drove drunk.

But why has the surge persisted and worsened this year, even as traffic has been picking back up and nearing pre-Covid-19 levels? We don’t entirely know, but it seems to have something to do with the pandemic altering traffic patterns.

So more people are speeding, driving drunk, and not wearing seat belts. What the relationship is to pandemic conditions is unclear but it has to be quite indirect. I myself am finding it hard to construct a plausible explanatory scenario that links the two.


  1. blf says

    So more people are speeding, driving drunk, and not wearing seat belts.

    On The Beach syndrome? E.g., “dangerous motor race that results in the violent deaths of several participants; elderly members of a ‘gentlemen’s club’ drink up the wine in the club’s cellar” and so on.

    Somewhat more seriously, I’ll guess that the problem with any “plausible explanatory scenario” is an unstated presumption of “rationality”. It’s rational to get the vaccine (when it’s available and you are eligible, except if you have a valid medical reason not to), and otherwise is not-rational. Speeding, driving drunk, and not wearing seat belts, are all also not-rational.

    Those not-rational actions also seem to correlate closely to nonsense like the sovereign citizen movement, who hallucinate “they are ‘free of any legal constraints'”, rather like loonytarians and Daleks. Sadly, only one of those is fictional.

  2. says

    Jalopnik have covered this several times over the past eighteen months.

    But it’s not just speeding. There is growing hostility and violence by drivers towards cyclists and pedestrians in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. Even before COVID-19, many cities eliminated car lanes to create space for cyclists.

    The pandemic (closure of public transit, lockdowns) is causing cities to create more space for cyclists and foot traffic. Drivers are lashing out at being denied the entire roadway, making cyclists and pedestrians the targets and victims of their road rage.

  3. says

    Paris recently limited all streets in the city to 30kmh (with the exclusion of major thoroughfares). Other cities have tried to do the same, and drivers lobby against it.

    In the UK, a single lane tunnel which had been assigned to pedestrians and cyclists was reopened to cars after cagers whined despite the fact there are already several car-only lanes at the same place. Cyclists and pedestrians (e.g. the elderly, children going to school) are now forced to go several kilometres to find a land crossing or risk being killed by ignorant, selfish and impatient drivers.

  4. Who Cares says

    Intransitive(#2) wrote:

    The pandemic (closure of public transit, lockdowns) is causing cities to create more space for cyclists and foot traffic. Drivers are lashing out at being denied the entire roadway, making cyclists and pedestrians the targets and victims of their road rage.

    What I find more aggravating about the entitlement shown by drivers is that making room for cyclists (and possibly pedestrians) tends to streamline car traffic thus leading to less time in the car. See this link about the effect in New York.

  5. Bruce says

    Some on the right have long fantasized about surviving the end of civilization, and thus entering a new primitive era in which there are no rules, laws, customs, or courtesies, and they can do whatever they want. Some of these people may have effectively decided that the pandemic is as close as they will ever get to their fantasy scenario, so they will “take it”, and pretend that they now live in a no-rules “paradise”, where they don’t have to drive defensively, because real men like them don’t have to believe in cause and effect. Avoiding driving into a building is only for the weak, not for supermen such as themselves. Paying attention on the road is thus an infringement on their “freedoms”.

  6. dean56 says

    “There is growing hostility and violence by drivers towards cyclists and pedestrians in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. ”

    As noted many cities have increased bicycle lanes and that “annoys” drivers. It’s also the case that the rises of Uber and Lyft have worked against these bicycle lanes since they often become dropoff/pickup lanes for people who use those services.

  7. No Respect says

    Cyclists that do it for travel or transport, I don’t mind, but those that do it for sport or recreation should stick to specialized circuits. Same goes for runners, actually. If you want to run, go to a circuit, a park, or something. If not, any accident or death you suffer is completely justified. Anyone who disagrees, please kill yourselves too and make the world a better place.

  8. robert79 says

    @8 No Respect

    “Cyclists that do it for travel or transport, I don’t mind, but those that do it for sport or recreation should stick to specialized circuits.”

    You want me to stash my bike in the back of a car, drive 10km to the forest nearby, bike 60km, then drive back 10km?!?

    What weird planet are you from?

  9. Katydid says

    I agree with Bruce; I’m seeing a lot of selfish, non-thinking behaviors. Just today, a driver in front of me stopped in the middle lane. Just…stopped. For no apparent reason. Because they could.

  10. dean56 says

    “but those that do it for sport or recreation should stick to specialized circuits. Same goes for runners, actually.”

    There’s the most stupid thing I’ve read this week.

  11. Who Cares says

    @No Respect(#8):
    User name checks out, you deserve no respect. I’m guessing you are one of those entitled car drivers who demand that the road is only theirs and grudgingly tolerates some other uses. Well if you really want to drive that car, there are plenty of car race tracks. If you want to drive please go there. Else, what was that eloquent argument you had for other road users actually using the road? Ah no I’m better then you so I’m not going to demand you kill yourself to make the world a better place, just go fuck yourself with a porcupine on stick (and record & release it please, that would be entertaining). If you want a better argument, come up with one or several of why you shouldn’t be confined to that race track. Those should be quite usable for why neither cyclists not runners should be confined to tracks.

    And yes I know how unreasonable it is to demand that from the car driver type that is so scared of cyclists that they rather wait for a cyclist on the side of the road to fix their chain then actually pay attention to traffic and notice that said cyclist is nowhere close, literally and figuratively, to using the road (until traffic behind you starts making noise for you holding up the place).
    Or is it that you cannot abide that a runner has to use the road, again that need to pay attention, due the FUBAR process of connecting locations in the US considering cars only so there is only the main road not just for runners (and cyclists) but pedestrians to use.

  12. machintelligence says

    Having lived in Chicago and driven on some of the expressways of that city during the rush hour when traffic always slowed to a crawl; I could truly claim that they were some of the safest roads in the country: it is hard to get killed or injured at a five mile per hour pace.

  13. says

    No thinking, no decency, no ethics, no clue (#8) --

    those that do it for sport or recreation should stick to specialized circuits.

    And how, pray tell, do they get to those places?

    Those are the words of someone who blames pedestrians who are kiled by cars because they use crosswalks instead of waiting for tunnels to be built.

  14. John Morales says

    Deserved and apposite though criticism of No Respect may be, it is a fact that not every rider interaction on public roads is morally or even pragmatically justifiable.

    I myself (motorcycle rider) have experienced roads either closed-off or clogged with bicycle riders doing some event. And riders who carelessly went into vehicles’ impact zones. And riders who expect car drivers to fit into spaces smaller than a car.

    Not to mention the idiots, whether youthful or not , who have no idea of personal safety.

    If you the reader have ever experienced that, I expect that you should have some appreciation of whence that controversial comment.

    (I do also appreciate the criticism, being a bike rider and all)

  15. Who Cares says

    @John Morales(#16):
    So because some cyclists are assholes, and yes that is what the ones who do not want to get out of their rhythm are when they ignore traffic rules/behavior, he is allowed to dictate who can and cannot use the roads? Nope.
    Especially not when car drivers do stunts like accelerate when you use them as a windshield in a 30 KM/H zone (Yes I do that when I go to work in normal clothing and it is sad funny to almost always get that reaction). Worse are the ones that hit the brakes. Or the ones that see you preparing to overtake slower cyclists and accelerate in the hopes of blocking the overtake attempt and when it fails hit the horn while revving the engine. Or the ones that start driving next to you then slowly squeeze you of the road. Or the ones that ignore you since people on bikes in the city don’t do 30+ KM/H (a lot of fun when they need to right don’t bother to indicate that and you just happen to be on that side). Or the ones that (on intersections that do not separate cyclists and cars) deliberately block you from navigating the intersection at the same time or before them. Or the ones that straight up try to ram you. Or the ones that consider the bikepaths to be their private roads. Or the ones that try to see if they can take your helmet.
    I think I’ll stop there and not continue for several more pages of asshole behavior of car drivers (and the other people in their car) versus people on bikes. So I do not have any appreciation of his controversial comment because if anything I think I have a greater right to vomit it up against car drivers, seeing their absolute atrocious behavior I run into on almost a daily base, then he has against cyclists/pedestrians but I don’t since the road is not the exclusive domain of cyclists who just happen to go faster then the average.

  16. says

    John Morales (#18) --

    Please explain how cyclists are at fault for city design and not politicians on the take from car companies, the real estate industry, gas companies, etc. How and why did cyclists get the power to make city planning decisions, then forced cities to design roads that would inconvenience cyclists? A desire by cyclists to make themselves into victims?

  17. John Morales says

    Intransitive, whatever made you imagine I thought or claimed that cyclists are at fault for city design?

    BTW, I’m familiar with that channel, I have watched multiple videos of it.

    (Thus my reference to stroads)

    Anyway, my #16 is in response to others’ comments savaging No Respect, and my #18 is in response to the OP. I had thought that would have been evident from context, but apparently not.

  18. says

    In Germany road deaths went down. Despite having much stricter speed limits than us, the USA manage to have a much larger amount of road deaths.

  19. says

    I run, walk, bike and drive a car. As far as I know, unless expressly prohibited otherwise, roads are there for everyone to use. Of course, some respect and consideration is required of all parties. If a sidewalk is available, I will use it when walking or running, otherwise, stay on the shoulder. When out for a bike or run, I always make sure that I am wearing high visibility clothing. At least make it easy for drivers to see you. I can’t count the times I’ve driven past walkers and runners at dusk who are wearing dark clothes and are difficult to be seen. As a driver, I always try to give extra room to runners and bikers because I know what a pain it is to have a car come close to you at speed. And as a runner, I never wear ear buds because I want to be completely aware of my surroundings. If you must wear ear buds, get out of the street. Two potentially distracted parties is not a good situation.

    But no matter how considerate and careful you might be, there will always be a-holes. Many times while on my road bike (in full hi-viz) cars (and especially pick-up trucks) have come very close, not giving an inch of space in spite of the fact that the road ahead is straight and vehicle-free (I ride a lot of country roads). And then there are the idiots who will slow up, and when they’re next to you, they’ll “blow coal” (they stomp on the accelerator and will create a huge cloud of diesel smoke). I can only guess that they somehow feel intimidated by runners and cyclists who are apparently healthier than they are.

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