Traffic and pedestrian fatalities hit record levels in 2020 despite fewer miles driven, safety officials say

May 27, 2021

Roadways were less safe even though fewer people were driving in 2020, and pedestrians incurred the brunt of the increase. Pedestrian deaths increased at a record rate, according to estimates projected by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) published last week. 

There were 6,721 pedestrian deaths in 2020, a 4.8% increase from 2019. Because the total amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) decreased dramatically due to the pandemic (13.2% decrease in VMT), pedestrian fatalities increased 21% in 2020, representing the largest annual increase on record. 

The GHSA and National Safety Council cited speeding, drunk and drugged driving, and greater driver distraction, as well as infrastructure issues that prioritize vehicles over walking and cycling. 

"We need to treat pedestrian safety like the public health emergency that it is,” GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said in a statement. “We must strengthen our efforts to protect those on foot from traffic violence by implementing equitable and proven countermeasures that protect people walking and address those driving behaviors that pose the greatest risk.”

During 2020, when much of the country was under shelter-in-place restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of overall traffic fatalities jumped 20% from 2019, according to data from the Governors Highway Safety Association that corroborates an earlier report by the National Safety Council. 

Pedestrian fatality graphic for 2020, according to GHSA

Pedestrian fatality graphic for 2020, according to GHSA

The estimated increase in the death rate reverses a three-year trend of reduced traffic fatalities, and demonstrates the largest spike in road death rates in more than 20 years. Total miles driven on U.S. roads dropped 13.2% in 2020, the NSC reported, but traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven during that same time frame jumped 34.4%. Less crowded roads actually made them less safe, ostensibly because drivers could go faster than normal. 

“Because of COVID-19 and states’ shelter-in-place orders...the country should have reaped a safety benefit from less traffic,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “Instead, our soaring rate of deaths speaks to our need to improve safety on our roads. Clearly, we must work harder as a society to reverse this trend.”

To be clear, the total number of estimated deaths increased only 1% from the first half of 2019, and decreased 2% compared to the first half of 2018. But factor the increase in deaths in the first half of this year with the reduction in miles driven, and the death rate per miles driven becomes that much more pronounced. The estimated annual death rate due to traffic fatalities for 2020 is 11.8 deaths per 100,000 population.

Pedestrians have incurred a greater increase in risk. The GHSA found that 6,721 pedestrians were killed in 2020, up from 6,412 pedestrian fatalities in 2019. The rate of drivers striking and killing pedestrians increased from 1.9 to 2.3 deaths per billion vehicle miles traveled, which represents the largest ever annual increase in pedestrian fatalities on a per mile basis. Pedestrian deaths have increased 46% in the past decade, while all other traffic deaths have increased only 5%, according to the GHSA. 

GHSA graphic on increased fatality rate of pedestrians in 2020

GHSA graphic on increased fatality rate of pedestrians in 2020

Larger SUVs attributed to the spike in pedestrian fatalities, as did alcohol impairment, which was reported in nearly half of the crashes that killed a pedestrian. The GHSA also said that people of color made up a larger share of pedestrian fatalities based on their respective share of the population, and most pedestrian deaths occurred at night on local roads away from intersections. 

Some states bucked the trend with a decrease in pedestrian fatalities, with Wyoming, Maine, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and North Dakota registering the largest percentage drop of the 21 states that registered a decrease. Kansas, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and South Dakota had the largest percentage increase in pedestrian fatalities in 2020.  

The economic cost of traffic deaths, injuries, and property damage in the first six months of 2020 was $206.4 billion, according to the NSC. The NSC uses semiannual and annual estimates based on the mortality rates compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, whose reporting lags by about one year. The NSC estimates have a 0.13% historical variance with the NCHS.

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