Jan 3, 2023
Despite COVID-19 stay-at-home orders forcing many people to remain at home throughout the year, 2020 was especially dangerous for drivers. As we’ve noted in previous blogs, early data released by the National Safety Council (NSC) last year indicated that although the roads were emptier than ever, they were actually “more lethal.”
Data from the NSC indicated a year-over-year 14% jump in fatality rates per miles driven in March 2020 (in spite of an 8% drop in the total number of roadway deaths when compared to March 2019). Those figures demonstrated that although fewer cars were on the road, the danger of actually being involved in a car accident increased.
A follow-up NSC report from July 2020 stated that “May  data from all 50 states indicates that, for the third month in a row, road users in the U.S. were at a higher risk of dying from a motor vehicle crash.” And as the pandemic progressed, those numbers continued to increase.
The NSC’s annual report for 2020 found that the estimated mileage death rate for the year was 1.49 deaths per 100 vehicle miles traveled – a staggering 24% increase from the 2019 figures. Many of those fatal car crashes occurred here in Southern California, with 94 confirmed deaths occurring in the Antelope Valley region throughout 2020.
A traffic investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, Matthew Davis, called the figures “out of control” in an interview with local ABC 7.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just released its preliminary estimates of crash fatalities involving motor vehicle occupants on June 3. The report’s findings indicate that 38,680 traffic fatalities occurred in 2020. That figure – a 7.2% increase from 2019 – represents the largest projected number of motor vehicle deaths since 2007. And the fatality increase occurred despite a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from the previous year.
How could there be such a significant increase in motor vehicle fatalities during a year when most of us were stuck inside quarantining or under mandatory lockdowns? Data from the Federal Highway Administration which was included in the NHTSA’s report indicates that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) decreased by approximately 430.2 billion miles, and yet the fatality rate increased sharply.
The NHTSA report found that risky behaviors including failure to wear a seatbelt, speeding, and drinking while driving were contributing factors in the 38,680 traffic fatalities that occurred in 2020.
“Safety is the top priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Loss of life is unacceptable on our nation’s roadways and everyone has a role to play in ensuring that they are safe. We intend to use all available tools to reverse these trends and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries,” Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Acting Administrator, said in the report. “The President’s American Jobs Plan would provide an additional $19 billion in vital funding to improve road safety for all users, including people walking and biking. It will increase funding for existing safety programs and allow for the creation of new ones, with a goal of saving lives.”
Some key statistics from the NHTSA’s study include a year-over-year increase in traffic fatalities within specific categories:
At 6,205, pedestrian traffic deaths remained flat for 2020, according to the NHTSA’s report.
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When examining crash factors and demographics, some of the largest year-over-year increases included:
The final statistic noting an increase in traffic fatalities among Black Americans is generating significant attention. As CNN reported, the 23% increase is an indication of which populations “could and could not afford to stay home during the pandemic.”
While motor vehicle deaths among Black Americans had been increasing steadily in recent years – a 16% increase reported from 2005 to 2019 – the 23% increase for 2020, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, is truly concerning.
“This tells me who was required to travel out and about, and who was allowed to work from home,” Eulois Cleckley, executive director of the Denver Department of Transportation, told CNN Business. “We have a lot of work to do to fix our infrastructure and make it much more safe.”
Checkley told CNN that just 5% of Denver’s roadways contribute to over 50% of its fatalities, with the deadliest paths being overwhelmingly in minority and low-income areas.
Dr. Destiny Thomas, an urban planner and founder and CEO of the California-based Thrivance Group, told ABC News she believes there are two main contributing factors in the 23% motor vehicle death increase among Black people.
The first factor, according to Thomas, has to do with one’s source of income:
“These are the communities that were our essential workers across the country... Black folks in particular were more likely to suffer the negative impacts of compounding the location of disparity. Being a city worker means that you’re at greater risk because you’re on the road more than everyone, but it’s also high-stakes driving. These are people who are getting paid hourly rates. If you’re late three minutes, you’re more likely to lose your job, and of course during a time of economic downturn and insecurity that pressure makes you make different types of decisions on the road.”
Thomas points to a lack of infrastructure as the second factor:
“We live in communities that for generations, for decades, have been under invested. Everyone during the pandemic was driving faster because the roads were not as congested. So the implications for that in a community that has no functioning signal, less crossing opportunities, uneven pavement or unexpected community-wide construction [are worse]. There are still entire communities that don’t have sidewalks. These things make sort of a perfect storm for increased fatality rates in Black families,” she told ABC News.
A separate study published Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that, when analyzing data from 2015 through 2019, traffic crash fatalities “disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” The report – “An Analysis of Traffic Fatalities by Race and Ethnicity” – is the first of its kind to be published in over a decade, according to the GHSA.
GHSA data showed American Indian and Alaskan Natives were most likely to die in motor vehicle accidents, while Black people had the second-highest traffic fatality rate.
Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations at GHSA, told ABC News the study was an effort to help determine methods for reducing car accidents.
“We conducted this analysis with the aim that it will help to inform decisions about highway safety planning, traffic enforcement and safety education so that we can have a baseline of what we need to do to better serve some of these communities and reduce crashes,” Martin said. He also stressed the importance of improving infrastructure in communities of color.
“I think we also need to better engage these communities in the planning as well. We want to have people from communities involved in the highway safety planning process,” Martin told ABC News. “We want to hear these diverse voices.”
In an NBC News report, president of Smart Growth America, Calvin Gladney, said that predominantly Black neighborhoods are less likely to have crosswalks, warning signs, and other safety mechanisms. Additionally, Gladney said many high-speed highways are either in or go through communities of color as a result of a federal effort in the 1950s to modernize the nation’s roadways.
“These fatalities have been going upward for a decade,” Gladney said in an interview with NBC News. “You go to Black and brown communities, you go to lower-income communities and you don’t see many sidewalks. You don’t see as many pedestrian crossings. The types of streets that go through Black and brown neighborhoods are like mini highways where the speed limit is 35 or 45. You see this disproportionately in Black and brown communities often because of race-based decisions of the past.”
The NBC News report indicated that Black neighborhoods without proper infrastructure funding are subject to:
Gladney told NBC News that simple policy changes such as lowering the speed limit in certain neighborhoods could save hundreds of lives each year. He pointed to the federal effort initiated by Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee – the Complete Streets Act of 2021 – as a possible means of progress in curbing the increase in motor vehicle deaths involving Black Americans.
The Complete Streets Act would:
The bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives, but no further action has been taken at this time. As mentioned earlier, President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for a $20 billion investment in safety, including $10 billion that would be put towards improving streets and reducing car accidents.
Approximately 6 million car accidents occur in the U.S. every year. That equates to roughly 16,438 motor vehicle collisions every single day. Car accidents can lead to serious injuries or fatalities, leaving victims with mounting medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and more.
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