Deaths from car crashes have been declining in the United States for the last 50 years. Significant advancements in car safety and traffic laws, as well as decreases in drunk driving deaths, have contributed to fewer fatalities.
Statistics on traffic fatalities during the pandemic
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed that trend nationwide, and Virginia is no exception. In 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic, 827 people died on Virginia’s roadways. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there were 847 deaths, a 2% increase over 2019.
There were more crash fatalities in Virginia throughout 2020, despite the fact that the total number of nationwide miles driven by Americans dropped precipitously in 2020. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, American drivers traveled 3.261 trillion miles nationwide in 2019, but only 2.905 trillion miles in 2020.
Fatalities also increased despite significantly fewer car crashes reported statewide in 2020. There were 128,172 car crashes reported in Virginia in 2019, but only 105,600 in 2020. So, even though crashes were down 21% from 2019 to 2020, fatalities increased 2%.
In 2021, the second year of the pandemic, traffic fatalities in Virginia increased dramatically. 967 motorists lost their lives in 2021, which is a 15% increase over 2020. Total miles driven nationwide rebounded to 3.227 trillion, but there were still fewer cars on the roads in 2021, compared to 2019 when there were fewer fatalities.
A New York Times analysis of nationwide data found that per capita vehicle deaths increased 17.5% from 2019 to 2021. That is the largest two-year increase since the late 1940s.
What is going on?
Frustration, likely driven by pandemic protocols and restrictions, may be driving the increase in fatalities. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, reports that this frustration comes from “two years of having to stop ourselves from doing things that we’d like to do. When you get angry in the car, it generates energy – and how do you dissipate that energy? One way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator.”
Markman’s theory appears to be supported by the statistics. In 2020, speed-related fatalities in Virginia increased by 16% to 406, which accounted for nearly half of total fatalities that year.
“Sadly, some drivers saw empty lanes and open roads, resulting from the pandemic lockdowns, as an invitation to behave irresponsibly and dangerously behind the wheel,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic Spokesperson Morgan Dean.
Major factors causing traffic fatalities during the pandemic
Dean outlined four factors that played a role in the increase in traffic fatalities in 2020 and 2021:
- Aggressive/reckless driving
- Alcohol use
- Failure to wear seatbelts
The U.S. Department of Transportation has also reported that the rates of drivers impaired due to opioids and marijuana use increased dramatically after mid-March 2020. That has undoubtedly contributed to the problem.
Buckle your seatbelt, slow down, avoid aggressive driving, and do not drive impaired. Together, hopefully we can reverse these alarming trends in 2022.