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Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities at a 16-year High in 2021

NHTSA’s 2021 car accident report indicated that approximately 42,915 people died in auto crashes last year, a 10.5 percent increase from the figures recorded in 2020.

These projections smashed the 2020 15-year record of 38,824 fatalities to set a new 16-year record. However, 2005 remains the year with the highest number of deaths in recent history, with almost 55,000 casualties on American roads.

A Dangerous Trend

While 2021 numbers are way lower than those recorded in 2005, they indicate a dangerous two-year trend of increased road accident fatalities after a three-year decline in road accidents on American roads from 2017 to 2019.

Most experts believe the uptick in auto accidents in 2020 had everything to do with the pandemic. First, the emptier roads were an invitation to some to drive recklessly. Also, seemingly there was less traffic rules enforcement due to a myriad of reasons.

“Open roads and less enforcement opened the door for other risky behavior such as DUI, distracted driving, and speeding,” says car accident lawyer John Yannone.

Negligible Improvement

While volume of traffic picked up in 2021 as many Americans started venturing out, the bad habits at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns outlived continued the upward trend in the number of accidents. According to Dr. Steven Cliff, the current NHTSA administrator, the crisis is a matter of urgency but reversible.

In 2020 fatality rates per 100 million VMT stood at 1.34 fatalities but decreased only slightly to 1.33 fatalities in 2021. The fatality rates stayed relatively high in the first quarter of 2020 but declined in the other three quarters of the year.

Federal Government Intervention

While releasing the preliminary report, Pete Buttigieg, the Transportation Secretary, acknowledged that the country is facing a real road tragedy, and all players in the sector must make conscious efforts to address it. Buttigieg expressed the federal government’s commitment to reversing these trends as envisioned in passing the Biden administration’s infrastructure law.

The law emphasizes improving road safety under the new Safe Roads and Streets for All Program. The program, which opened its first round of applications in mid-May, seeks to inject $6 billion over five years to fund states’ efforts in curbing the runaway fatalities in individual states.

The bipartisan infrastructure law also seeks to advance Complete Street Policies and Standards requiring standardized technology such as speed cameras, traffic lights, etc. The program also prioritizes funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program, which helps states achieve a data-driven road safety approach.

The Real Picture

The NHTSA launched the “click-it or ticket campaign,” coinciding with the agency’s efforts to create awareness about the effectiveness of the seat belt in saving lives. According to the CDC, seatbelts can reduce the chances of death in a crash by up to 45 percent and serious injury by 50 percent.

2021’s increase in auto crash fatalities was recorded across 44 states, including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Also, the report indicated a rise in all categories of accidents, with multi-vehicle crashes and urban road fatalities topping the list at a 16 percent increase.

Fatalities involving older adults (65+) were up 14 percent, pedestrian fatalities 13 percent, truck accidents 13 percent, and daytime fatalities 11 percent. Motorcycle fatalities rose by 9 percent, cyclists by 5 percent, speed-related accidents by 5 percent, and alcohol-related crashes by 5 percent.

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