Despite a significant drop in motor vehicle traffic last year, highway fatalities saw their sharpest increase in nearly a century, soon after the automobile became a standard mode of transportation.
Millions of Californians stayed home for months in 2020, either working remotely or losing their jobs due to the pandemic. Many experts believed one of the few benefits would be a drop in fatal accidents.
Drivers put the pedal to the metal
Instead of fewer deaths on the highways, the National Safety Council (NSC) reports 42,060 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, an 8% increase from 2019. However, when the NSC factored in the 13% decline in total vehicle miles traveled, the rate comparatively jumped by 24% – the largest since 1924.
Experts say excessive speed looks to be the primary cause. In urban areas, data show motorists’ speeds increased by an average of 35%. Speeds increased by nearly 40% in San Francisco and Los Angeles compared to 2019.
Riskier behavior among drivers is also on the rise
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration looked at police records of crashes across the country in 2020. The agency says large numbers of victims tested positive for alcohol and drugs, and fewer were wearing their seat belts than in the past.
In addition, the number of arrests rose sharply for reckless driving and speeding. The role that speed plays in severe or fatal accidents was highlighted in those statistics. While the number of total crashes decreased in 2020, the number of deaths increased.
In a seven-week period monitored in California after stay-at-home orders began, the rate of minor injury accidents fell by about a third. At the same time, fatal crashes rose by nearly 15%. Experts say in addition to increased speeds, a growing number of people buying heavier SUVs and pickup trucks are also leading to more deaths.