Earlier this year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released data projecting that in 2020, motor vehicle traffic crashes resulted in a stunning 38,680 deaths, even traffic volume decreased as people drove less during the pandemic. This figure represented the highest number of motor vehicle traffic crashes since 2007, and an increase of about 7.2% over 2019, when there were 36,096 such fatalities.
Traffic safety researchers initially predicted that reckless driving increased during the pandemic due to drivers’ pent-up stress, and that the number of fatalities would fall when more drivers returned to the road. According to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times, this prediction was incorrect. Instead, “The latest evidence suggests that after decades of safety gains, the pandemic has made U.S. drivers more reckless — more likely to speed, drink or use drugs and leave their seat belts unbuckled.”
Experts attribute the surge in reckless driving, which aligns with similar spikes in liquor sales, murders, and drug overdoses, with widespread psychological changes that resulted in more prevalent “isolation, loneliness and depression.” One psychologist, Temple University professor Frank Farley, referred to the phenomenon as “arousal breakout.” “You’ve been cooped up, locked down, and have restrictions you chafe at,” he told the Times. ““So if you can have an arousal breakout, you want to take it.”
To support the hypothesis that the rising fatalities are the result of reckless driving, experts point to the fact that “fatal accidents involving only one vehicle also rose disproportionally,” per the Times. There are also more fatal accidents that involved “speeding, illegal substances or a failure to wear a seatbelt.” One expert told the Times, “…It’s a symptom and a sign of the overall lack of consideration we’re showing for other citizens, whether it be wearing masks, or not getting vaccinated, or how we drive.”
The fatalities have risen in both urban and rural areas, affecting both highways and quiet back roads. They’ve affected all age groups and take place at all times of day, all days of the week. According to the Times, they’ve risen in 41 states, with the most substantial spikes in Rhode Island, Vermont, Arkansas, and South Dakota. Researchers have reportedly identified a few patterns in the data, however, namely that “the death rate for Black people rose more than three times faster than the death rate overall.” One proposed reason for this is that more impoverished communities, with more essential workers affected by the pandemic, sustained “a deeper sense of despair.”
More information on the research showing a sharp increase in fatal car crashes around the country is available via the Los Angeles Times.