This chart shows percentage change in estimated fatalities in the first half of 2021 from estimated fatalities in the same half of 2020, by NHTSA region.  -  Image courtesy of NHTSA.

This chart shows percentage change in estimated fatalities in the first half of 2021 from estimated fatalities in the same half of 2020, by NHTSA region.

Image courtesy of NHTSA.

Approximately 20,160 people lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, up 18.4% over 2020 and the largest number of projected fatalities in that time period since 2006.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the new data on Oct. 28, and the reaction was grim. The National Safety Council released a statement saying the fatality estimates “paint a dark picture of the state of safety on our nation’s roadways.” United States Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the traffic deaths “a crisis” that we cannot and should not accept as simply a part of everyday life.

Rounding out the roadway picture and adding further context, preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration show that vehicle miles traveled in the first half of 2021 increased by about 173.1 billion miles, or about 13%. The fatality rate for the first half of 2021 increased to 1.34 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from the projected rate of 1.28 fatalities per 100 million VMT in the first half of 2020.

In addition to the traffic fatality data, NHTSA also released a report on Oct. 28 that evaluates key factors driving the spike in fatalities.

The report explores motorists’ behaviors from March 2020 through June 2021 and finds that incidents of speeding and lack of seat belt compliance remain higher than during pre-pandemic times. 

For example, the report examines ejections from vehicles because they are a surrogate measure of seat belt use since people using seat belts are less likely to be ejected.

Based on EMS data when responding to a collision, the ejection rate in most of 2020 after week 10 — when the COVID-19 emergency was declared — shows an increase as compared to 2019. Moreover, the ejection rates through week 34 of 2021 were also higher in most weeks than those observed in 2019.

The report also examines speed data on various types of roads in both urban and rural settings. For example, it shows the range in speeds for urban interstates from the slowest 1% of vehicles (1st percentile) to the fastest 1% of vehicles (99th percentile) from January 2019 through June 2021.

It is interesting to note that the range of speeds from March 2020 through February 2021 became relatively narrow compared to previous months. Also noteworthy is the shift to consistently faster 99th percentile speeds from March through June 2021. In short, speeding has become a habitual practice of many drivers.

The rapid rise of traffic fatalities and drivers’ continued risky driving behaviors has prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to produce the Department’s first ever National Roadway Safety Strategy to identify action steps for all stakeholders working to save lives on the roads.

The goal of the Safety Strategy is to significantly reduce serious injuries and deaths on our nation’s roadways. While the Department has an important leadership role to play in addressing this crisis, the agency notes that it will take concerted and coordinated effort across all levels of government, the private sector, and communities to reverse the current trend. The strategy will be released in January. 

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