2020 Was a Deadly Year for Driving


Closeup of crushed in vehicle vender
Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

With 2020 well behind us, more and more data is being published to tell us how road safety fared in a year of little driving and much confusion. Unfortunately the data, and especially NHTSA reports on collisions in the United States, paint a grim picture of a year in which it could have been reasonably expected to feature a drastic reduction in collisions.


This has not been the case, a fact which is both startling and worrying. In an article on the Verge on what the new data has to say about 2020, Andrew J. Hawkins calls it "the bloodiest year for driving in over a decade," a claim firmly backed up by NHTSA statistics.


"Overall, 38, 680 people died in car crashes in 2020, the highest number since 2007. But it's worse than it sounds, since the number of miles driven in the US dropped by 13 percent. That means every mile someone drove last year was more dangerous than it was the year before."

Many traffic experts were hoping that the decrease in driving during the pandemic would mean a decrease in collisions, and a decrease in the number of people transported to hospital for traffic-related injuries in a time when hospitals were continually overloaded.


Instead, the rate of collisions and fatalities were up, in almost every category:


"NHTSA found that fatalities rose in major categories, including passenger vehicle occupants (up 5 percent), motorcyclists (up 9 percent), and bicyclists (up 5 percent). The number of pedestrian deaths in 2020 - 6,205 - was flat compared to 2019, which is still alarming, given that year was among the deadliest for pedestrians in 30 years."

And as the Verge points out, these statistics leave out certain data points that would actually increase the number of fatalities, like deaths that occur in parking lots and on private roads, and fatalities that, while a result of a collision, occur more than 30 days after the collision occurs.


An increase in road fatalities in a year with less driving obviously raises some big questions - the most obvious one being, how?


One theory is that the lower volume of vehicles on the road actually incentivized drivers to behave more irresponsibly. Clear roads provided an opportunity, for those willing to take it, to increase their speed. And increased speeds are one of the biggest predicators of traffic fatalities: the faster you're travelling, the more likely a collision is to be fatal.


Whatever the reason, this data will hopefully promote bigger and more effective conversations about how to start fighting traffic collisions and fatalities and making the roads safer for everyone.


For more on the NHTSA data, check out the original article on the Verge by Andrew J. Hawkins.