Federal Traffic Fatality Data Shows Positive Gains, But Serious Concerns Persist During the COVID-19 Era
October 1, 2020
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Pandemic Prompting Speeding, Lack of Seat Belt Use
Statement for attribution to Jonathan Adkins, Executive Director, Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The release of new data and special reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), one of the deepest analyses to date of driver behavior during the pandemic, provides some good news for traffic safety but also cause for significant concern about road user behavior during the public health emergency.
GHSA is heartened to see traffic fatalities fell two percent in 2019 – the third straight year of declines. While this is progress, the 36,096 lives lost in 2019 are unacceptable, as any single individual killed in a traffic crash represents unspeakable loss and tragedy for those left to mourn.
NHTSA’s early estimates of motor vehicle fatalities for the first half of 2020 show an additional two percent decline. Again, this is welcome news, but vehicle miles traveled during this same time period dropped 16.6 percent compared to 2019. Why isn’t the reduction in traffic fatalities far greater?
NHTSA’s in-depth analyses of highway safety data during the COVID-19 pandemic affirm concerns voiced by GHSA in April based on trends reported in the spring by state highway safety offices. Far too many drivers saw open roads as an invitation to engage in risky behaviors like speeding, driving under the influence and driving unrestrained. GHSA’s members have daily reported speeding violations of 100 miles per hour and higher on highways and local roads throughout the country. For too long, speeding has been the forgotten traffic safety issue, even though it is a factor in nearly a third of all roadway deaths.
One of the most effective strategies to reduce speeding and encourage seat belt use is consistent and conspicuous traffic enforcement. However, reports from NHTSA and GHSA’s members suggest that in the earliest days of the pandemic, states and communities took steps to reduce health risks for law enforcement officers by limiting traffic stops. This may have led some motorists to believe they could get away with dangerous and aggressive driving, despite the threat to themselves and everyone on the road.
The COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically impacting all aspects of American Life, including a greater willingness on the part of some to engage in risky driving behaviors. It is absolutely critical that all levels of government and the private sector work together to address these trends or more families will tragically lose loved ones to traffic crashes that are entirely preventable. We appreciate NHTSA leading this important collaborative effort.