In the first half of 2021, the United States saw 20,160 deaths in vehicle crashes on its roadways. This number is an 18.4% increase from the same period in 2020 (which had 17,020 deaths) and is the highest number of roadway deaths in this timeframe since 2006.
This fatality number increase, released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is the largest six-month increase to be recorded within the history of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System–a system that has kept track of roadway death statistics since 1979.
“This is a crisis,” said Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary, when NHTSA published its “early estimates” report. “More than 20,000 people died on U.S. roads in the first six months of 2021, leaving countless loved ones behind. We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America.”
Overall vehicle miles traveled during the first half of this year rose by around 173 billion miles (13%), according to preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration. Because of this, the death rate for that time period also increased by around 1.34 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
“After the declaration of the public health emergency in March 2020, driving patterns and behaviors in the United States changed significantly,” said the NHTSA Office of Behavioral Safety Research. “Of the drivers who remained on the roads, some engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, failure to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.”
Speeding in general was a major factor in roadway deaths during that timeframe, and extreme speeding became much more common as well, especially as many people were returning to their commutes following the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders.
“Traffic data cited in those reports showed average speeds increased during the last three quarters of 2020, and extreme speeds, those 20 miles per hour or more higher than the posted speed limit, became more common,” said NHTSA.
These numbers show clearly that many people feel compelled to behave more recklessly behind the wheel than they did pre-pandemic.
“The report is sobering,” said Steven Cliff, Deputy Administrator for NHTSA. “It’s also a reminder of what hundreds of millions of people can do every day, right now, to combat this: slow down, wear seat belts, drive sober, and avoid distractions behind the wheel.”
Levinson and Stefani’s Ken Levinson echoed this plea, noting that although these numbers don’t yet show the statistics for traffic deaths involving commercial motor vehicles, trucking companies need to do their due diligence in combating this safety crisis.
“It seems like it’s much more dangerous on the roadways these days, and that’s due to a lot of pressure due to driver shortages, companies not hiring safe drivers, not screening them or training them properly, and a lack of enforcement over a lot of safety rules,” Levinson said. “So, it’s definitely become more dangerous on the roadways. We all have to be cognizant of that, and we encourage everyone in the trucking industry to be aware of it and act accordingly. Hire safer drivers, enforce safety rules, and be diligent.”
It’s also increasingly important that passenger vehicle drivers are as alert and cautious as possible when on the road around heavy trucks, in addition to potentially reckless passenger drivers.
“We have to be really careful around trucks,” Levinson continued. “They’re large, dangerous, and you never know if a truck driver that’s sharing the road with you has exceeded his hours of service, hasn’t been properly trained, might be tired, or might have a health issue–so be careful to drive defensively near trucks.”
When FARS annual report files for 2020 become available this year and its final file for 2020 and annual report file for 2021 become available next year, we’ll have a clearer idea of the actual death counts between 2020 and 2021 and the percentage increases across the two years.
“These estimates will be further refined when the projections for the first nine months of 2021 are released in late December,” said NHTSA.