Car Accident Deaths in 2020 and Part of 2021 Higher Than Pre-Pandemic

Nearly two years after the global pandemic started, it’s clear that our lives are forever changed. There have been major shifts in the workplace with The Great Resignation and people working from home. Record inflation. A devastating impact on mental health. Though more people have stayed home due to COVID-19, a dangerous and surprising trend has emerged — traffic fatalities in 2020 and part of 2021 surged compared to previous years. 

Car Accident Deaths in 2020 Increased Compared to Pre-Pandemic | Metromile

Traffic fatalities on the rise during the pandemic 

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) saw a 7.2% rise in traffic fatalities compared to 2019. 

NHTSA estimated that 38,680 people died due to traffic-related crashes in 2020, compared to 36,096 in 2019. 

According to 2021 data recently released by NHTSA, the surge in fatalities continued for most of the year. From January 2021 to September 2021, the agency projects that 31,720 people died in traffic crashes. This is a 12% boost compared to the same nine-month period in 2020, with 28,325 fatalities projected, and is the highest number of fatalities for the same period since 2006. 

During this time period, NHTSA projects that 38 states had fatality increases compared to the same time period in 2020. The glimmer of hope is that fatality rates in the second and third quarters of 2021 dropped compared to the same period in 2020. NHTSA also projects that two states had fatalities that remained the same, while ten other states had fatality decreases compared to 2020. 

Breakdown of traffic categories and factors 

Nearly all traffic categories had an increase in traffic-related fatalities, except pedestrians, which remained the same (though a recent New York Times article states pedestrian deaths are up). According to the 2020 NHTSA fatality data:

  • Passenger vehicle occupant fatalities rose 5% in 2020 compared to 2019
  • Motorcyclist fatalities rose 9% in 2020 compared to 2019 
  • Fatalities for people on bikes rose 5% in 2020 compared to 2019 

Additionally, there were certain factors and demographics that made up the highest increases in 2020, compared to the previous year. According to NHTSA, these include:

  • non-Hispanic Black people (up 23%); 
  • occupant ejection (up 20%); (when the impact of a crash ejects the occupants from a car — seat belts can help significantly to avoid this)
  • unrestrained occupants of passenger vehicles (up 15%);
  • on urban interstates (up 15%);
  • on urban local/collector roads (up 12%);
  • in speeding-related crashes (up 11%);
  • on rural local/collector roads (up 11%); 
  • during nighttime (up 11%); 
  • during the weekend (up 9%); 
  • in rollover crashes (up 9%); 
  • in single-vehicle crashes (up 9%) and; 
  • in police-reported alcohol involvement crashes (up 9%).

What’s causing the increase in traffic fatalities during the pandemic? 

There is no single cause behind the boost of traffic fatalities during the pandemic, but rather a combination of behaviors and factors leading to these crashes. 

The NHTSA noted that the primary culprits behind the surge included:

  • Not wearing a seat belt
  • Speeding
  • Impaired driving 

In other words, there’s been an increase in reckless driving behavior after years of making strides with safe behavior and driving habits. Some experts and studies are pointing to the fact that increased isolation and mental health struggles are adding to careless driving. 

A January 2021 NHTSA Traffic Safety Report notes that there was a shift in driving behavior early on in the pandemic. There was an increase in average speeds, and the agency reported that extreme speeding became more commonplace. In fact, some metro areas saw a median 22% speed increase, which obviously impacts driver safety and can lead to accidents.  

On top of that, more drivers tested positive for driving under the influence. From mid-March to mid-July, a whopping 66% of drivers involved in serious or fatal accidents tested positive for alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Compared to the six months prior to this period, opioid use in drivers nearly doubled, while marijuana use in drivers rose by close to 50%

Alcohol and drug use have increased significantly due to the pandemic, potentially in part to the stresses of pandemic life. 

According to one study, excessive drinking rose 21% after the pandemic started compared to pre-pandemic life. Drug overdose deaths also surged. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, reported drug overdose deaths tracked over a 12-month period were at 73,343 in February 2020. As of September 2021, that number was 99,543. 

All of these factors have contributed to car accident deaths in 2020 and trending car accident news headlines. 

The bottom line 

The car accident news coming out during the pandemic has been another devastating blow in a tough couple of years. Luckily, it looks like there was a decrease in traffic fatalities in Q2 and Q3 of 2021, compared to car accident deaths in 2020. Will the trend continue? Only time will tell. To stay safe and protected, always wear your seat belt, do not drive under the influence [or get in a vehicle with someone who has been drinking], and make sure you have the right car insurance for your needs. Low-mileage drivers who aren’t on the road as much can benefit from pay-per-mile coverage and save money along the way. Check out your free quote. 

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, podcast host of the Mental Health and Wealth show, and author of Dear Debt. She’s a cat mom to two jazzy cats, Miles and Thelonious, an amateur boxer, music lover, and needs coffee to function.