The COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic shift in driving habits through the first quarter of 2020, particularly with regards to people on the roadways of America. Between lockdowns, closings, and jobs transitioning from office to home, people were driving less. That trend continues for the first quarter of 2021, but a more disturbing trend also carries over. Despite fewer miles driven, traffic deaths are up.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its early estimate of traffic fatalities through the first quarter of 2021. While it's just an estimate, the data suggests the trend of fewer miles with more deaths is getting worse. In the first three months of 2021, the report estimates that 8,730 people died in motor vehicle crashes versus 7,900 in 2020. That's an increase of 10.5 percent, and it's also the highest first-quarter estimate from the NHTSA in at least the last 12 years. But that's only part of the story.
An increase in fatalities could correlate with an increase in miles driven, but just like last year, the opposite is true for Q1 2021. Miles driven fell 2.1 percent, and while that doesn't sound like much, it actually equates to roughly 14.9 billion miles. When you do the math, it all equates to a fatality rate of 1.26 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Estimates from Q1 2020 had that figure a 1.12, which was also up from 1.05 in 2019. As with the total number of fatalities, the current fatality rate of 1.26 is higher than at any point in the previous 12 years. In fact, it's considerably higher.
What's the reason for this? According to the NHTSA, it amounts to drivers being riskier in their behavior behind the wheel. Speeding, distracted driving, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and driving without seat belts are all factors. These are the same factors NHTSA identified in the early stages of the pandemic through 2020.
"We must address the tragic loss of life we saw on the roads in 2020 by taking a transformational and collaborative approach to safety. Everyone – including those who design, operate, build and use the road system – shares responsibility for road safety," said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s acting administrator. "We are working closely with our safety partners to address risky driving behaviors such as speeding, impaired driving, and failing to buckle up."