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Federal estimates show the incidents claimed 43,000 lives in 2021. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warns of a safety “crisis” on the nation’s roadways.
America’s streets became a lot more deadly in 2021 than they were a year earlier. In fact, more people died in U.S. traffic crashes than in any year since 2005.
The federal government released estimates Tuesday showing that 42,915 people died in traffic crashes last year, a 10.5% increase from a year before. The numbers are especially troubling, because increases in road deaths during 2020 had already alarmed traffic safety advocates.
The number of fatalities increased again in 2021 as more people returned to the road following long periods of staying at home in 2020. The fatality rate per mile driven actually decreased slightly in 2021, but Americans drove more frequently.
The increased traffic on the roads did not appear to be enough to thwart reckless behaviors that safety advocates and police blamed for the spike in traffic deaths in the early days of the pandemic.
The death toll from 2021 is 18% higher than it was in 2019, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted nearly all aspects of society, including driving habits.
“We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “We are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways.”
Buttigieg said the infrastructure law that President Biden pushed for included many provisions that could fund safety improvements. On Monday, the Federal Highway Administration opened the application process for regional, local and tribal governments to apply for Safe Streets and Roads For All grants that were funded through the six-month-old public works law. The program will distribute $6 billion over five years for safety improvements.
Cathy Chase, the president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called for states and the federal government to do more.
“Acting swiftly to advance solutions at both the federal and state levels to prevent crashes and save lives is the only acceptable response in the face of such overwhelming evidence and public distress,” she said.
Specifically, she called on the federal government to move forward with requiring crash-avoidance technology in new cars, such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind spot detection. But the federal agency in charge of vehicle safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has struggled to roll out safety regulations required by Congress.
Chase also said state governments could improve road safety with simple – but often controversial – changes in their traffic safety efforts.
“Enacting proven safety laws, setting speed limits that account for the entirety of the roadway environment as opposed to the common practice of focusing on average vehicle speeds, utilizing automated enforcement programs to deter speeding and red-light running, and undertaking safety-focused roadway infrastructure upgrades can and must occur expeditiously,” Chase said.
Russ Martin, the senior director of policy and government relations for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said the increase was brought on by dangerous driving and “roads designed for speed instead of safety.”
Together, he said in a statement, they “wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths. This grim milestone confirms we are moving backwards when it comes to safety on our roads.”
Fatalities Way Up in Urban Areas
The federal estimates show that the problem is widespread, but some groups bore the brunt more than others.
Urban areas, for example, saw a 16% increase in fatalities, compared to a 4% rise in rural areas. The contrast is even starker when looking at the kinds of roads where those deaths occurred. Fatal crashes increased by similar amounts in both rural and urban areas. But deaths on the smallest streets went up by 1% in rural areas, compared with 20% in urban areas.
Pedestrian deaths again increased at a greater rate than traffic deaths overall, with a 13% increase in 2021. The number of cyclists who died also went up, but, at 5%, it was less than the rate of traffic deaths overall.
NHTSA projected that 44 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had an increase in traffic deaths in 2021.
There is evidence that reckless behavior from the pandemic continued even as many restrictions eased. Speeding and alcohol-related crashes took more lives in 2021 than a year before, even though both saw huge jumps between 2019 and 2020.
But other changes could be at work, too. Americans continue to buy bigger and more powerful vehicles, which make it harder for drivers to see other road users and more damaging when they collide with them. Fewer Americans are taking buses and subways, and many continue to work from home, disrupting decades-old commuting patterns on the road.
In fact, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that saw an increase in road deaths in 2020. The International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, which includes 34 developed countries, concluded that while the United States accounted for an increase in fatal crashes of 5.1% that year, the rest of its members combined saw a decrease of 19.2%.