As Cars Left the Streets During COVID-19 Lockdowns, Traffic Deaths Rose

As vehicles vanished from the roads during the last six months of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, traffic fatalities increased dramatically, according to preliminary research by the National Safety Council. The NSC found that there were 20% more traffic fatalities between January and June 2020 than January to June 2019, even as drivers drove 17% fewer miles during that same period. This death rate constitutes “the highest jump NSC has calculated for a six-month period since 1999,” according to a news release by the organization.

NSC data shows that when numerous states ended their strict quarantines in June 2020, the number of miles driven by US drivers was still 13% lower than in 2019. Still, “death rates and number of deaths both skyrocketed”: number of deaths by 17% in June, and the death rate per 100 million miles driven by 34.4%. What the NSC concludes from this data is that “the lack of traffic did not make the roads safer.” Distressingly, these spikes in traffic deaths follow a “leveling off and small declined in overall fatalities” that itself followed a steady increase in fatalities between 2015 and 2017.

In a statement, the President and CEO of the NSC said: “Because of COVID-19 and states’ shelter-in-place orders earlier this year, the country should have reaped a safety benefit from less traffic…Instead, our soaring rate of deaths speaks to our need to improve safety on our roads. Clearly, we must work harder as a society to reverse this trend, especially since the pandemic is not nearly over.”

In spite of the overall rise in deaths, NSC data showed that same states saw decreasing roadway deaths, while others saw dramatically increasing roadway deaths. The states that experienced between 16% and 49% fewer deaths were Idaho, Oregon, North Dakota, Iowa, Hawaii, Alaska, and Wyoming. The states that experienced between 21 and 91% more roadway deaths were Missouri, Arkansas, Rhode Island, South Dakota, the District of Columbia, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The NSC’s release includes a number of recommended practices drivers can employ to make the roads safer. These include: obeying speed limits; practicing defensive driving; designating a sober driver; wearing seatbelts; sleeping adequately; avoiding distractions; complying with state, county, and city rules; and staying alert to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. More information is available via the National Safety Council here.

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