U.S. Traffic Deaths Highest In 16 Years

Nearly 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2021 in this country, a 10.5% increase from the 38,824 lives lost in 2020. That’s an average of almost 120 deaths every day. Those numbers represent the highest death toll since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase in the nearly five-decade history of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

Those are the main findings of new estimates of crash deaths last year released on Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways.”

Earlier this year Mr. Buttigieg announced details of the first ever National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS), a road map for addressing the sobering rise in the death toll that adopts the Vision Zero or safe system approach to road safety and design that takes human error into account, first put into effect in Sweden in the 1990s. The goal is to eliminate all road deaths and serious injuries by creating multiple layers of protection – safer roads, safer people, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and better post-crash care – so if one fails, the others will create a safety net to lessen the impact of a crash.

The national initiative is currently receiving funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Some key actions include: modernizing federal regulations for street design by updating the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which defines speeds, lane markings, traffic lights and more on most roads in the country; leveraging technology to improve the safety of motor vehicles, like rule making on automatic emergency braking and pedestrian automatic emergency braking; updating the rating system for the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP); and providing technical assistance to communities.

The federal agency’s early estimates showed large increases in traffic deaths in 2021 compared to 2020 in a number of categories:

  • pedestrians crashes (up 13%)
  • multi-vehicle crashes (up 16%)
  • urban roads crashes (up 16%)
  • crashes among drivers 65 and older (up 14%)
  • daytime crashes (up 11% )
  • motorcyclist crashes (up 9%)
  • bicyclist crashes (up 5%)
  • speeding-related crashes (up 5%)
  • alcohol-involvement crashes (up 5%)

“An increase in dangerous driving – speeding, distracted driving, drug- and alcohol-impaired driving, not buckling up – during the pandemic, combined with roads designed for speed instead of safety, has wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths,” Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association, said in a statement. “This grim milestone confirms we are moving backwards when it comes to safety on our roads.”

He called the Department of Transportation’s new National Roadway Safety Strategy “a bold blueprint,” but widespread collaboration, including with the public, would be necessary to attain the goal of zero traffic deaths.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement, the “horrific spike of motor vehicle crash deaths” could be reversed and lives could be saved if proven actions are taken at both national and state levels.

Measures that could end “the deadly trend” include: improving performance standards for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS); requiring certain crash avoidance technologies in all new vehicles; upgrading adaptive beam headlights, hoods and bumpers; addressing speed; and enhancing commercial motor vehicle safety. Hundreds of lifesaving traffic laws that the safety group recommended that states pass were detailed in its 19th annual Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws published earlier this year.

These and other actions are essential, Chase added, and “will make our roadways less deadly for everyone.”

Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, said in a statement that the crisis on the nation’s roads is urgent and preventable. “We will redouble our safety efforts, and we need everyone – state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers – to join us. All of our lives depend on it.”

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