Traffic and pedestrian fatalities spike despite fewer miles driven due to Covid, safety officials say

March 23, 2021

Roadways are less safe even though fewer people are driving, according to preliminary reports by top safety agencies. Through the first six months of 2020, when much of the country was under shelter-in-place restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of traffic fatalities jumped 20% from 2019, with pedestrians accounting for a much higher death rate, according to a report released Tuesday by the Governor's Highway Safety Association that corroborates an earlier report by the National Safety Council. 

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 17% from January to June, 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 similar increase in risk. The GHSA found that 2,957 pedestrians were killed in the first half of 2020, six more than the same time period in 2019 despite the reduction in miles driven. The rate of drivers striking and killing pedestrians increased from 1.8 to 2.2 deaths per billion vehicle miles traveled. The GHSA predicts 2020 will have the largest ever annual increase in pedestrian fatalities on a per mile basis. 

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. 

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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