It was a tally that shocked the experts: 38,680 deaths on U.S. roads last year, the most since 2007, even though pandemic precautions had drastically reduced driving.
“This was completely unprecedented,” said Ken Kolosh, a researcher with the nonprofit National Safety Council. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
One possibility was that stressed-out Americans were letting go of their worries on the wide-open roads. He suspected fatal accidents would decrease in 2021 if traffic returned.
He was wrong. The latest evidence suggests that, after decades of safety gains, the pandemic has made American motorists more reckless — more likely to speed, drink or use drugs and release their seat belts.
“I’m afraid we’ve adopted some really unsafe driving habits and they’re going to continue,” Kolosh said. “Our roads are less safe than before the pandemic.”
Experts say that behavior on the road is likely a reflection of widespread feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression.
“We might decide, what does a seat belt or some other beer really matter, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?” said Shannon Frattarolic, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The increase in motor vehicle deaths is in line with other trends of the pandemic era: alcohol sales have skyrocketed, drug overdoses have set new records, and homicides are the largest ever recorded.
COVID-19 marks “a sea change in psychology,” said Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who views reckless driving as a form of rebellion — or what he calls “excitement outbreak.”
“You’re locked up, locked up and have limitations that annoy you,” he said. “So if you can have a burst of excitement, you want to take it.”
Before the pandemic, safety on American roads had improved for decades, thanks to the enforcement of seat belt laws and the advent of airbags, improved braking and stability control, and other safety features.
Even as the number of people on the road increased and many states increased their speed limits, the annual death toll fell from about 55,000 in 1970 to 36,096 in 2019.
Then came the 7.2% increase in 2020, followed by an 18% jump in the first six months of this year, based on preliminary federal government figures.
What made last year’s increase so astonishing was that total miles driven – an estimate calculated from traffic on various roads – fell by more than 13% as cities closed down and more people worked from home.
For every 100 million kilometers driven last year, 1.37 people died, a 23% increase from 2019. Mileage estimates are not yet available for 2021.
Scattered across the country at a time when the country’s focus is on deaths from COVID-19, road deaths have attracted little public attention.
- Yolanda Bozonier, 59, had just wished her grandchildren good night when a drunk driver drove into her home in Pomona and killed her in her bed.
- Best friends Kimani Foster, 20, and Dior Berkeley, 19, died together in the back seat of a speeding car that crashed into a tree in Queens, New York City.
- Sheria Musyoka, 26, said goodbye to his wife before she went for a morning jog in San Francisco, where he was hit and killed in a crash involving eight vehicles.
“We have white crosses marking the sides of the road, and seeing them is the closest connection many people will feel to this crisis,” said Paul Ravelin, a Vermont state police patrol commander who reported the death toll last year. increased by 32%.
Left to examine the statistics, researchers have struggled to attribute the rise in deaths to one particular factor.
Deaths are increasing in both urban and rural areas. They have risen on both highways and back roads. They are up during the night and the day, during the week and on weekends. They climbed in every age group between 16 and 65.
They rose in 41 states, with South Dakota, Vermont, Arkansas and Rhode Island experiencing the largest increases.
However, some patterns have emerged.
Chief among these is that the death rate for black people has risen more than three times faster than the overall death rate, an inequality that could reflect a deeper sense of despair in the poorer communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
Frattaroli wondered if it was linked to a disproportionate number of black people in the essential workforce, including delivery drivers who are “paid by how fast you can move”.
As one of the clearest signs of increasing recklessness, fatal accidents involving only one vehicle also increased disproportionately.
The data also shows an exorbitant increase in fatal crashes involving speeding, illegal substances or not wearing a seat belt.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a Washington nonprofit that represents agencies nationwide, suggested that people’s disdain for themselves and others on the road is part of a national decline in civility that accelerated during the pandemic. .
“Anecdotally, we’re hearing from governor offices across the country that it’s a symptom and a sign of the general lack of consideration we show for other citizens, whether it’s wearing masks, not getting vaccinated, or how we drive. ” he said. “It’s very aggressive. It’s very selfish.”
In California, which saw a 5% increase in fatalities last year, Highway Patrol officers issued nearly 28,500 tickets for speeds over 100 mph, nearly double the 2019 total. They arrested 232 people for reckless driving — an increase from 150% – and are on track to surpass that this year.
Research based on crash studies has shown that even a small increase in speed, say from 50 mph to 56 mph, is enough to increase the driver’s risk of death.
Since the start of the pandemic, a higher proportion of accident victims – including those who survived – have been thrown from their vehicles, mostly because they were not wearing seat belts.
The increase in droppings was seen just as the lockdowns started. Men have accounted for a disproportionate share.
Making the roads even more dangerous will increase drug and alcohol use. In one study, more than 7% of adults said they were more likely to drive while disabled than before the pandemic.
Federal researchers who looked at accidents that killed or seriously injured drivers found that the proportion who tested positive for opioids nearly doubled after the pandemic began. Marijuana use also rose significantly.
Finally, more drivers are distracted. Researchers used GPS and other data to determine that drivers were using their phones more often after the pandemic started, and that the problem got worse over time.
When it comes to reducing road fatalities, there is no unequivocal answer from the authorities.
Arizona, Arkansas and Georgia have passed legislation to address street racing. Texas has passed a law against “reckless driving,” or performing stunts and spinning in front of crowds of spectators.
But other states have relaxed their driving laws. In Virginia, drivers can now go up to 85 mph — instead of 80 mph — before being charged with reckless driving. Maine motorists convicted of criminal negligence resulting in a driving-related death have had their license suspended for one year instead of three.
And nationwide, more than two dozen road safety laws proposed in 2020 and 2021 fell flat.
The dead go on.
- Victor Peterzen was riding the bike he’d been given just before his 10th birthday when he was hit by a jeep in Houston.
- Monique Muñoz, 32, died when her car was nearly split in half by another vehicle as the teenage driver drove through a Los Angeles intersection at more than 100 mph.
- Diana Granobles, 31, was driving to the JFK airport in New York to pick up her husband when a drunk driver crashed into her car, killing her and their 10-year-old daughter, Isabella.