A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: U.S. car crash deaths increased in 2020 despite the pandemic and we drove much less

In my line of work as a safety and risk management, we know that frequency always breeds severity, and the less frequency you have these severe accidents you will have. But that motor vehicle deaths in 2020 are estimated to be the highest in 13 years, despite the dramatic drop in miles driven due pandemic. As a result such an anomaly has many safety professionals across America scratching their heads and asking the questions?

Once the pandemic hit, my employer closed our office and sent us all to work from homes, and I went from driving on average of 2000+ miles a month, to 150 miles a month, for several months throughout 2020. When we did venture out for toilet paper, the roadways where I live resembled a ghost town.

Yet, that decrease in driving did not make our nation’s roadways any safer. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), for the first time since 2007 preliminary data shows that as many as 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020 compared to 39,107 people in 2019. That marks an 8% increase over 2019 in a year where most of us were all were quarantining while our were vehicles parked for weeks at a time.

Despite the pandemic, the preliminary estimated rate of death on the roads last year spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period, despite miles driven dropping 13%. The increase in the rate of death is the highest estimated year-over-year jump that NSC has calculated since 1924 – 96 years.

To emphasize just how significant the drop in miles being driven all across the nation, the oil demand all across the world dropped so significantly that it caused gasoline prices to plummet to 1980’s prices. Then to prove how unusual life had become, the impossible happened and our auto insurance carriers began giving out rebates because our driving exposure had decrease. Two things that I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.

So in essence our nation’s highways became emptier but became far more deadly. So what caused this lethal increase? 

What makes this such an anomaly is that the number of vehicles on the roadways with vehicle collision avoidance systems such as automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning systems have increase significantly in just the last 5 years.  

Without looking at the causation data, I would have to speculate that the increase in fatalities would be directly related to a change in driver behavior, because vehicles and roadways didn’t suddenly become less safe.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

The NHTSA theorized that people began speeding more on open roads, leading to more deadly crashes, according to an Associated Press story. Another reason many safety experts believe may have caused this spike was because speed limits were not being stringently enforced once the pandemic hit.

“We believe that the open roads really gave drivers an open invitation marked open season on reckless driving,” Maureen Vogel, director of communications at NSC, said in an interview with ABC News.

While the final data will determine causation, Vogel said states saw increases in speeding, increases in distraction, and, in some cases, increases in impaired driving.

In addition to the fatalities, an estimated 4.8 million additional roadway users were seriously injured in crashes in 2020, and the estimated cost to society was $474 billion.

With the alarming picture painted by these data, NSC is urging President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to commit to zero roadway deaths by 2050 – a call NSC and more than 1,500 other organizations and individuals made in January in a letter to the new administration.
The NSC also said faster development of technologies to improve autonomous driving and automated law enforcement would help bring down the death rate. They also suggest installing vehicle locking systems for convicted drunk drivers, lowering the speed limits, banning all cellphone use while driving, improving seat belt laws, improving infrastructure to our roadways, improve driver education and bridges, and installing automated enforcement and enforcing additional safety laws.

The year 2020 was a very unusual year for all of us, and I’m sure most of us are just glad to have it in our rearview mirrors. I for one don’t ever want to speak of 2020 ever again, but I do want to encourage everyone to buckle up, put down the cellphone and get back to normal because the roadways haven’t become any less dangerous in 2021.

Be Safe My Friends!

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