(CNN) — When the coronavirus pandemic brought the country to a standstill last year, the roads were emptied as many people took refuge at home. But those who got behind the wheel had a more risky behavior, which caused the deadliest year for car accidents in America in more than a decade.
According to law enforcement and road safety experts, the number of drivers who were speeding, who did not fasten their seat belt and who drove under the influence of drugs and alcohol increased.
The result was grim. Some 38,680 people died in traffic accidents in the United States last year, the highest number since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Deaths also increased among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians, even as the number of miles driven across the country decreased by 13.2% compared to 2019.
“It is disconcerting and extremely frustrating to see the tremendous loss of life from covid-19 compounded by preventable traffic accidents,” he says. Pam Shadel Fischer, Senior Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
Experts have several theories about the increase in fatal collisions.
And based on preliminary data for the first three months of this year, 2021 has the potential to be even worse.
Motorists dare more and more with empty roads
The recent increase in fatal collisions has been recorded in all regions of the country.
In New York state, more than 1,000 people died in traffic accidents last year, up from 938 the year before, according to state police spokesman Beau Duffy. The percentage of crashes related to unsafe driving, alcohol or illegal drugs increased in 2020 from 2019 levels, Duffy said.
The crashes in Colorado reflected similar trends. Speeding incidents – that is, going 65 km / h or more over the limit – soared 48% last year from 2019, said Sgt. Blake White, a spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol. The state also saw an increase in assaults on the road, street racing incidents, and other aggressive behaviors.
“During the peak of the pandemic, many drivers stayed home and were discouraged from traveling unless absolutely necessary,” White said. “Some of the drivers on the road seemed to feel that traffic laws were no longer applied during the pandemic due to the decrease in traffic volume.”
As drivers have returned to the roads, they have had to adjust to sharing space with others after a year of open roads. One of the results has been increased aggressiveness behind the wheel, according to White.
Even though there were fewer cars on the roads, pedestrian fatalities also increased last year.
An analysis of state data projects that 6,721 pedestrians were killed on America’s highways last year, 4.8% more than in 2019. según la Governors Highway Safety Association.
“Even though there were fewer vehicles on the road last year, more pedestrians were killed by drivers,” said Adam Snider, GHSA communications director.
When the decline in vehicle miles traveled in 2020 is taken into account, the pedestrian fatality rate jumped 21% since 2019, the largest annual increase since NHTSA began collecting and analyzing this data in 1975.
Drivers’ speeding led to deadlier crashes
During the pandemic, many agents turned their efforts to helping critical industries, such as grocery stores, during supply shortages, White of Colorado said. This meant a decrease in traffic safety controls, he said.
As a result, many motorists stepped on the gas, leading to more deaths.
“Increasing speed leads to more fatalities and injuries,” White said. “When the speed increases, the severity of the crash is exponentially worse.”
Many other large states, including California and Georgia, also reported increases in fatal crashes last year. In Georgia, although there were fewer crashes statewide, the death toll increased as a result of speeding, said Lt. W. Mark Riley of the Georgia State Patrol.
“As the roads were more open and the speed of people increased, the crashes were more violent,” he said. “It’s always riskier when people drive faster.”
Last year, California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers issued 28,000 tickets for speeding over 100 miles per hour, a 92% increase over 2019. The state also saw an increase in fatal crashes last year, after declining numbers for the previous two years, said Jaime Coffee, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.
Coffee said the CHP is working with other highway patrols and state law enforcement agencies on road safety campaigns that focus on enforcing safe speed regulations.
Higher number of fatal accidents is related to drugs and alcohol
Beyond speeding and careless driving, more people turned to alcohol to cope with the prolonged stress and uncertainty of the pandemic.
Research shows that various groups, including the women and the Americans over 30, have drunk more during the coronavirus pandemic.
The overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by approximately one 14% in 2020, while women increased their binge drinking days, defined as four or more drinks on one occasion, by a 41% compared to the same months of 2019.
“We all had a lot on our minds throughout 2020, which made it even more difficult than usual for some drivers to focus on the road in the midst of everything that is happening in the world around them,” said Snider. , of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“Additionally, the pandemic has likely exacerbated substance abuse problems in some individuals,” he said.
Data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed an increase in the prevalence of drugs and alcohol among the drivers killed or seriously injured in accidents during the pandemic.
“Getting drivers to slow down and adhere to the speed limit, buckle up on every trip, and always drive sober will be the key to reversing these negative trends,” Snider said.
But the first data for 2021 are not encouraging.
Preliminary data shows that the US had about 9,420 traffic fatalities in the first three months of 2021, according to the National Safety Council, a group of non-profit security activists. This represents an increase of 10% compared to the same period in 2020 and 12% compared to 2019, according to the NSC.