One of the oddities of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increase in fatal vehicle crashes.
This is counterintuitive, considering that mileage driven has decreased — particularly early in the pandemic, when stay-at-home orders left the roads nearly barren. Americans drove 13 percent fewer miles in 2020 compared with the previous year, but the number of people killed by cars increased from 39,107 to 42,060.
That is according to the National Safety Council, which counts vehicle deaths slightly differently than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NSC includes deaths resulting from incidents in private spaces such as driveways or parking lots and includes deaths that occur up to a year after the crash.
But regardless of how we count them, traffic deaths are increasing. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission recorded 522 fatal crashes in 2020 — up from 513 the previous year and 490 the year before that.
Nationally, the National Safety Council reports: “The increase in the rate of death is the highest estimated year-over-year jump that NSC has calculated since 1924 — 96 years. It underscores the nation’s persistent failure to prioritize safety on the roads, which became emptier but far more deadly.”
Either because of the pandemic or in spite of it, many of us have eschewed safety measures we had spent years cultivating. Well, we’re sure that you haven’t … but a lot of those other drivers have become careless. And that can be just as big a threat as our own actions behind the wheel. As Mom used to say when we were a young driver, “I trust you, but the other guys scare me.”
That makes the job more difficult for Washington’s Target Zero project. As the initiative’s website explains: “Target Zero is a data-driven, strategic plan developed and implemented by several Washington state organizations. … The Washington Traffic Safety Commission, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Department of Health are united in working toward the goal of zero traffic deaths and serious injuries in Washington state.”
The project emphasizes driving sober, driving without distractions, adhering to the speed limit and wearing a seat belt. It also focuses on programs to help young drivers develop safe habits. In 2017, the Legislature increased penalties for distracted driving, prohibiting the use of a cellphone when behind the wheel.
Legislative action has a proven record of improving safety on our roads. Seat-belt requirements, vehicle airbags and other safety measures, and stringent drunk-driving laws have sharply reduced fatalities over the past five decades. In 1969, there were 5.04 fatalities per 100 million miles driven, according to the NHTSA; by 2019, the rate was 1.10.
That is one reason the increase in deaths is disconcerting.
The National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Illinois, recommends, among other things:
- Mandatory ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers and lowering the legal level of impairment.
- Reducing speed limits.
- The use of traffic light cameras.
- And comprehensive programs for pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
Those warrant discussion, but the most important thing is attentive and cautious driving. Throughout the pandemic, traffic fatalities have increased. That serves as a reminder that we need to worry about the other motorists on the road.