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US road deaths increased by more than 10% in 2021

Just drive carefully, okay?
Enlarge / Just drive carefully, okay?

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We had an inkling that the traffic statistics for 2021 would be bad. In November last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published data for the first half of that year, showing the greatest ever six-month rise in road fatalities since people kept records. On Tuesday, the other shoe dropped, with NHTSA’s estimate of the entire year’s toll: 42,915 people killed in crashes, an increase of 10.8 percent compared to 2020.

The rise in road deaths began with the pandemic in 2020. Despite a big reduction in the number of miles we drove, road deaths went up that year—8 percent year-over-year, after a period of gently declining traffic fatalities. Sadly things haven’t gotten better.

Most kinds of driving became more dangerous last year. Deaths on rural interstates and urban arterial roads increased by 15 percent. And local and urban collector road deaths went up by 20 percent, belying the idea of “Vision Zero”. Both daytime and nighttime deaths went up by 11 percent compared to 2020, with weekends seeing a slightly larger increase than weekdays (11 percent versus 10 percent).

Rollovers resulting in vehicle occupant deaths went down a little last year (4 percent year-over-year), but NHTSA notes that 2021 rollover deaths still eclipsed 2019’s toll. But there was a slight (2 percent) rise in the number of people ejected from their vehicles during a crash, which NHTSA thinks is due to fewer people wearing their seatbelts.

Perhaps encouragingly, the increase in the number of fatal crashes where the police reported alcohol as being a factor only rose by 5 percent year-over-year, compared to a 16 percent increase for 2019-2020. However, NHTSA notes that this is a different metric from its usual reporting on alcohol-related crashes, where the agency uses blood-alcohol data.

It was risky to be a driver, passenger, motorcyclist, pedestrian, or cyclist in 2021, as deaths in each category went up by 12, 9, 9, 13, and 5 percent, respectively, year-over-year.

If there is anything hopeful to take home from this report, it’s that when normalized to vehicle miles traveled, road deaths actually dropped slightly, from 1.34 deaths per 100 million miles to 1.33 deaths per 100 million miles.

“We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways.”

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