2020 was a year synonymous with COVID-19 lockdowns, canceled trips, and more time spent indoors. Therefore, it’s especially surprising that stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggest the year was deadlier for car accident victims, at least between January and September. While many of us saw rebates from our car insurers due to decreased expenses, the rate of traffic fatalities increased nationwide in 2020.
Experts suggest this surprising trend was due to the unique responses to and stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the vaccine rollout has most people looking forward to a return to normal, the factors that have led to this increase in dangerous driving behavior may persist for months still. All of us should stay vigilant when we are on the road lest we end up the victim of a serious accident.
Speeding Drivers Cause More Damage
One of the biggest culprits in the increase in severe accidents in 2020 was speed. With roads emptied by shelter-at-home orders, drivers were more likely to push speed limits. Even as traffic levels crept up again, drivers did not slow, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. Data from the NHTSA shows big cities saw, on average, a 20% increase in vehicle speeds during the pandemic. Law enforcement officials across the U.S. issued more than twice as many tickets for speeding over 100 mph.
Speed is one of the biggest factors in crash risk and severity. From accelerating recklessly down empty highways to engaging in late-night drag racing on city streets, drivers made the sort of poor choices that made our streets more dangerous. However, this was not the only cause identified for 2020’s increase in roadway deaths.
Driver Age and Risky Behavior
With the elderly more likely to be affected by COVID-19 and therefore more likely to stay home, younger drivers were responsible for a larger proportion of traffic, according to reporting by the New York Times. Members of that group have a bigger tolerance for risk-taking behind the wheel.
Aside from speeding, younger drivers are more likely to forego seatbelts or drive while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The number of car crash patients with intoxicants in their system increased by 15% during the pandemic, according to NHTSA data. Though the agency has released reminders to always drive sober, wear a seatbelt, and follow speed limits, it’s hard to say whether public service announcements will make a difference.
Pandemic Stress May Be Leading to Worse Choices
Even the decisions to engage in these riskier behaviors were not made in a vacuum. COVID-19 has introduced many stressors into Americans’ lives, from increased financial insecurity to the challenges of staying isolated from loved ones during hard times to having to cancel travel plans and spend the larger part of a year in our homes. Some experts believe risky driving behaviors became coping mechanisms for frustrated and discouraged individuals.
In New York City, motorcyclist fatalities hit their highest levels in decades. More than half of the riders killed in these crashes did not have a license. Disproportionately young men, the victims seem to have used motorcycles as a temporary escape from the feeling of being trapped indoors.
The same could be true for some drivers caught traveling at extreme speeds. With entertainment harder to find as events are canceled and venues like theaters subject to continued lockdowns, some drivers may be making their own fun—albeit in dangerous ways.
It’s possible the increase in intoxicated drivers is another symptom of pandemic stress. Drugs and alcohol are commonly used to unwind or self-medicate when times get hard. Data also suggest drivers are spending more time distracted by phones, which could be a response to the endless COVID-19 news cycle or a result of the way we have all turned to technology to keep in touch with loved ones.
Given this evidence, the answer to this problem is unlikely to be something as simplistic as announcements and reminders about the rules of the road. Like everything else in this pandemic, there may not be an easy answer at all.
Should I Be Worried by These Stats?
Given the danger inherent to driving, some people may be questioning whether the increase in motorist deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic is worth worrying about. While we aren’t saying you should skip out on things you need to do to avoid potential roadway dangers, it’s worth being a bit more cautious when you hit the road.
The NHTSA hasn’t released any injury stats for 2020, but our team predicts the increase in traffic deaths was matched by an increase in serious injuries like traumatic brain injury (TBI) or spinal cord injury (SCI). These injuries can change a victim’s life forever—your ability to perform your job, participate in hobbies you love, and even care for yourself may be lost due to brain damage. No one wants to cause, or suffer, an accident this severe.
Especially for the younger drivers who are more likely to be on the road during the pandemic, you have decades ahead of you. None of us can stop another driver from making a bad decision, but we can drive defensively, look twice before entering an intersection, and make sure we follow traffic rules and stay focused on the road. While our team is ready to fight for individuals who suffer severe injuries like TBI in a car accident, we would much prefer to see everyone arrive at their destination safely.