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.