In 2020 and 2021, younger drivers and people whose highest level of education is high school reported the greatest amount of time spent behind the wheel and number of miles driven, according to new research from the AAA Foundation.
Specifically, young adult drivers aged 20–34 reported spending more time driving and driving more miles each day in 2021 than drivers aged 35-49 did, and high school graduates reported significantly more driving on average than college graduates did. In light of previous research on traffic risk in relation to age as well as well-documented socioeconomic disparities, these shifts may have important implications for traffic safety, notes AAA Foundation.
During that same period, crash fatalities skyrocketed. Both the traffic fatality rate —that is, deaths per mile driven — and total traffic fatalities increased halfway through 2020. Moreover, that increase appears to have been sustained throughout 2021, the deadliest year on the roads since 2005 with 42,915 people killed in motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
NHTSA’s data also shows teenagers and young adults accounted for most of the increase in traffic fatalities in 2020, relative to 2019.
Experts say it is unsurprising that certain shifts occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, people with higher levels of education were the ones who typically drove longer and farther. The prevalence of remote work increased substantially in response to the pandemic, but research has shown that younger adults and persons with lower levels of education were much less likely to be able to work from home. In short, younger and less educated drivers were those who primarily populated our roadways in 2020 and 2021.
These shifts in the distribution of driving exposure may have contributed to changes in traffic safety during the pandemic. For example, previous studies indicate that the rate of fatal crash involvement has been shown to decrease with increasing driver age for all but the very oldest drivers. Therefore, an increase in the driving exposure of younger adults relative to middle-aged adults would be expected to lead to increased traffic fatalities.