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‘This is a crisis:’ Road fatalities hit 15-year high

The Department of Transportation announced it will put together a strategy to combat rising deaths, which are increasing the most in the West and the South.
Syndication: Cape Cod Times
A car involved in a fatal accident in Sandwich, Mass., on Oct. 1. Steve Heaslip / Cape Cod Times via USA Today Network

Though fewer Americans are dying from Covid-19, another fatal scourge is on the rise: death by automobile.

There were an estimated 20,160 traffic deaths in the first six months of 2021, the highest total for that period since 2006 and 18.4 percent higher than the first half of last year, according to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures.

That is the biggest percentage increase in road deaths in the first half of the year since the U.S. Department of Transportation began recording fatal crash data in 1975, The Associated Press reported.

And it has put the U.S. on a pace for more than 40,000 traffic deaths just this year, with 15 states and Puerto Rico accounting for half of the road fatalities, according to the department.

Public health experts say the sudden rise in deaths on the road is inextricably linked to a pandemic that left millions of Americans feeling trapped and stressed out and looking for ways to escape their isolation.

“While there is no one causative factor, the reckless behavior is likely the confluence of increased drug and alcohol use, lack of safety constraints (like seat belts and texting), and greater opportunities for speeding and reckless driving given still fewer cars on the road, which is linked to feelings of liberation,” said Karl Minges, interim dean at the University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences.

The dire new death toll has set off alarm bells in Washington and sparked calls for developing a national strategy in response.

“This is a crisis,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement Thursday. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities are simply as part of everyday life in America.”

“It will take all levels of government, industries, advocates, engineers and communities across the country working together toward the day when family members no longer have to say goodbye to loved ones because of a traffic crash.”

It may also require a crackdown on speeders and people who refuse to wear seat belts.

Behavioral research from March through June found more people were flouting the speed limit and fewer people were using seat belts, according to the traffic safety agency.

That, the agency said, has figured into the trend of more reckless behavior on the roads, which has coincided with the pandemic.

“The report is sobering. It’s also a reminder of what hundreds of millions of people can do every day, right now, to combat this: Slow down, wear seat belts, drive sober, and avoid distractions behind the wheel,” the agency's deputy administrator, Steven Cliff, said in a statement. “All of us must work together to stop aggressive, dangerous driving and help prevent fatal crashes.” 

The writing was already on the wall in June when the traffic safety agency reported that traffic deaths increased by more than 7 percent in 2020, which was the biggest increase in 13 years, even though people drove fewer miles because of the pandemic.

Last year's increase was because drivers took more risks on less-congested roads by speeding, failing to wear seat belts, or driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, the agency said.

Less traffic-focused law enforcement was another factor, said Jonathan Adkins, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“People speed because they can get away with it,” Adkins said.

Minges said the national addiction to cellphones also plays a role.

“The public health and safety implications of texting while driving is not discussed enough,” Minges said, adding that during the pandemic, "people were glued to their phones and technology in general, and are conditioned to respond at the sound of a ‘bing.’”

That sound, Minges said, “immediately becomes a distracted driving situation leading to speeding, lane crossing or an accident.”

Motor vehicle fatalities have increased across the U.S. but the biggest jumps have been in the South and West, according to traffic agency figures.

3 dead, 2 injured in fiery collision in Burbank
A vehicle involved in a fatal accident is taken away in Burbank, Calif., on Aug. 4. Hans Gutknecht / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

The rise in deaths is also because people are driving more.

The 173.1 billion vehicle miles traveled in the first six months of this year is a 13 percent increase over the same period last year, according to preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration.

The death rate in the first half of this year climbed to 1.34 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from 1.28 deaths in 2020, the agency reported.