The National Highway Traffic Safety Association has released information on its data collected from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System in 2019. According to the data, the number of big-rig occupants who died in traffic crashes rose in 2019, although overall traffic fatalities declined.
The reporting system, FARS, releases vehicle traffic crash fatal injury data each year to Congress and to the public. The National Center for Statistics and Analysis associate administrator for NHTSA, Choi-Lin Chen, said that the administration’s full analytic report would be made public by the end of 2020.
According to the preview data, there has in fact been a decline in overall traffic fatalities by person, but there was still a 0.2% uptick in truck occupant deaths in all large-truck-related fatalities. There were two more big-rig occupant deaths in 2019 than 2018, even though overall truck crash deaths decreased.
The big rigs in question include both commercial and noncommercial trucks weighing in at over 10,000 pounds.
“The data provided by FARS does not distinguish between commercial and privately-owned trucks, so it is important not to draw conclusions regarding [commercial motor vehicle] crashes,” said a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “The agency continues to implement important safety initiatives, like the final rule updating the hours-of-service regulations, important research into new assisted technologies for drivers to improve safety, and the implementation of FMCSA’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse.”
2019 saw 36,096 fatalities in traffic crashes, a 2% decrease from 2018’s 36,835. This rate of decline was also seen between 2017 and 2018. Additionally, the number of overall vehicle miles traveled in 2019 rose by almost 1% between 2018 and 2019, while traffic deaths still declined. For 2019, the estimated fatality rate was around 1.10 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, as compared to 2018’s rate of 1.14 fatalities for the same number.
“Fatalities decreased by 2%, which continues the encouraging three-year downward trend,” said James Owens, NHTSA Deputy Administrator. “That’s very encouraging news.”
NHTSA has also released estimates for traffic crash deaths for the first half of 2020, and stated that the country saw an overall decrease in traffic-related fatalities for the second quarter of the year when stay-at-home orders were implemented. According to FARS data, around 8,870 died in vehicle crashes during the second quarter of the year, down 3.3% from the number of recorded deaths during the same quarter in 2019.
Additionally, estimates show that overall traffic volumes dropped by at least 16% in the first half of 2020, although traffic numbers fell more than the number of fatal crashes. Therefore, the traffic death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled during the first six months of the year is estimated to increase to 1.25, up from 2019’s 1.06 from the same period.
Throughout the stretch of the pandemic in 2020, researches saw some major changes in driver behaviors as well, according to companion data released by NHTSA. For example, drivers who did happen to drive at the peak of stay-at-home orders drove with much more recklessness–engaging in dangerous behaviors like failing to wear a seat belt, speeding, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to the companion study. Average driving speeds also increased in the second quarter of the year, and fewer people were wearing their seat belts in the event of a crash.
In the second study, data found that nearly two-thirds of drivers involved in serious or fatal traffic crashes between March and July tested positive for at least one active drug.
The number of drivers testing positive for opioids almost doubled after mid-March–the beginning of the pandemic’s effects in America–in comparison to drug levels detected during the six months prior.
“Road safety is always our top priority, and while we are encouraged by today’s reports showing a continued decline in total fatalities in 2019 and into the first half of 2020, we are concerned by the trend since April showing an increased fatality rate,” said Owens. “Now, more than ever, we should be watching ourselves for safe-driving practices and encouraging others to do the same. It’s irresponsible and illegal to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol–taking risks not only with one’s own life, but with the lives of others.”
NHTSA is meeting with government representatives during the last couple months of the year to find ways to develop and implement countermeasures in order to boost safety efforts.
Still, Owens said these kinds of backwards, dangerous trends are extremely surprising.
“We’ve never seen trends like this,” he said. “We feel an urgency to work with our stakeholders to take action and turn this around. We faced some unprecedented challenges this year, including in traffic safety.”