When Covid-19 lockdowns and work-from-home policies emptied roads, many experts breathed a sigh of relief, expecting traffic deaths to dwindle. Instead, they multiplied in many places, including in the West. In 2020, an estimated 38,680 people nationwide died in traffic crashes, up 7 percent from the previous year and a record high since 2007. The final death tallies for 2021 are expected to be even worse.
“This caught a lot of us by surprise,” says Shannon Frattaroli, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University.
The biggest upsurges in deaths occurred in the West. During the first half of 2021, traffic fatalities spiked by 26 percent in the Northwest and by 25 percent in California and Arizona, compared to the same months in 2020. In Phoenix alone, vehicular deaths jumped by an estimated 24 percent, while pedestrian fatalities skyrocketed by 40 percent.
These tragic incidents do not affect Americans equally. Nationwide, traffic fatalities among Black people increased 23 percent between 2019 and 2020, compared to only 4 percent among whites. Even before the pandemic, rates of traffic-pedestrian deaths were higher among Native American, Black, and Hispanic populations, and people of all races living in areas of high economic hardship have an increased risk of being in a severe or deadly traffic crash.
But why the sudden increase over the last two years? High-speed driving, failure to wear a seatbelt, substance abuse, and other reckless actions have accelerated during the pandemic and are contributing to the alarming statistics, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In California, highway patrol officers handed out nearly 28,500 tickets in 2020 to drivers speeding more than 100 mph—almost twice as many such tickets as they issued the year before.
“Our research finds that higher-risk motorists accounted for a greater share of drivers during the pandemic than before it,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Safety-minded individuals drove less, while many who increased their driving tended to engage in riskier behaviors behind the wheel.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the reduction in rush-hour congestion made it easier for some motorists to go faster than before, increasing the chances of collisions. But that doesn’t explain why lethal crashes persisted—and even rose—with the return of gridlock in 2021.
“The stress that came with isolation and, for some people, reduced economic opportunities was a lot to bear, and I think that’s one explanation for why we saw an increase in risk on the road,” Frattaroli says. “People were not feeling as secure and certain about their future, and risk is more acceptable when [there’s uncertainty] about where the world is going and how one’s loved ones are going to survive. There’s less of an incentive to take the steps that we know are important to keep road deaths down.”
Some people get a thrill out of breaking the rules and throwing caution to the wind, and these acts of rebellion often take place on the roads, says Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association.
But one of the most important things we can do as a country is to recognize that we don’t have to accept traffic deaths as the price for mobility, Frattaroli says. “There are ways we can prevent 40,000 people from dying every year on the roads.”