Relatively empty roads during the coronavirus shutdowns in the U.S. last year had a disturbing downside: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saw an increase in reckless behavior, and then an uptick in traffic deaths as safer-at-home mandates eased.
The most dramatic rise occurred toward the end of 2020, in the three-month period ending Sept. 30. During that time, traffic deaths rose 13.1 percent compared to the year before, NHTSA reported. That was the highest rate in 15 years.
According to preliminary data from the federal agency, 11,260 people died on U.S. roads during the third quarter of last year, compared to 9,953 during that period in the year prior.
Sadly, some of this news is no surprise. Early on in the pandemic there was a sharp increase in recklessness on the roads.
Risky Behavior on the Roads
Drivers engaged in “more risky behavior” during the early days of the pandemic, NHTSA said. Drivers were more likely to speed given the lack of traffic, not wear their seat belts, or drive under the influence. Additionally, the federal agency speculated that traffic enforcement was diminished, too, as police departments attempted to reduce contact with motorists.
The fatalities also came even as modern cars are getting safer and safer. In 2005, many new cars had just two airbags and lacked the kind of advanced collision-avoidance technology offered on new cars today. Now, every new car has at least four airbags — and most have between six and 10 — and the majority of new cars are being built with features that can automatically stop the vehicle if an impending collision is detected.
In an open letter to the public, NHTSA urged Americans to be safer on the road.
“Driving is a privilege, and with it comes the responsibility of protecting yourself and those around you,” it reads. “Traffic laws and the rules of the road are there to protect all of us. Following the rules of the road makes it much more likely that you will get home safely.”
“Now is the time to reverse 2020’s terrible trend,” NHTSA says. “The men and women at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are asking every one of our Nation’s drivers to stop taking unnecessary risks on the road. Let’s remember our safe driving practices—you may end up saving a life today.”