A new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that while the number of crashes and traffic injuries overall declined in 2020, fatal crashes increased by 6.8% as compared to 2019. Specifically, 38,824 people died in crashes nationwide in 2020 — that’s 2,469 more people than in 2019 and the highest number of fatalities since 2007.
The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled rose to 1.34, a 21% increase from 2019. At the same time, police reported 22% fewer collisions than they did in 2019 and the estimated number of people injured dipped by 17%.
Some experts believe that fewer crashes coupled with a higher crash fatality rate indicates that the collisions in 2020 were more severe, and may be due to aggressive and risky behaviors honed during the pandemic.
In fact, that NHTSA report notes that in 45% of fatal crashes drivers of passenger vehicles were engaged in at least one of the following risky driving behaviors: speeding, alcohol impairment, or lack of seat belt compliance.
For example, fatalities in speeding-related crashes rose 17% and fatalities in alcohol-impaired driving crashes increased 14%. Finally, unrestrained passenger vehicle occupant fatalities were also up 14% in 2020.
The report also examines these three major behavioral factors combined. In 2020, there were 1,638 passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes who were simultaneously unbuckled, alcohol-impaired, and speeding — a 21% increase from 1,357 in 2019.
Moreover, there were 1,938 unrestrained passenger vehicle occupant fatalities in crashes that involved alcohol-impaired driving and speeding, a 23% increase from 1,581 for the same metric in 2019.
Clearly the numbers are moving in the wrong direction. Perhaps most disturbing, these crash fatalities occurred in a year when total vehicle miles traveled dropped by 11% from 3,261,772 million in 2019 to 2,903,622 million in 2020.
Other noteworthy findings from the NHTSA report include data on vulnerable road users. The findings show that pedestrian fatalities rose 3.9%, reaching 244 — the highest number since 1989. Bicyclist and motorcyclist fatalities also increased by 9.2% and 11%, respectively.
Finally, fatalities in hit-and-run crashes are up an alarming 26%. Specifically, there were 2,564 fatalities in crashes involving hit-and-run drivers in 2020, a significant increase over the 2,037 in 2019.