Trends Toward Risky Driving Behaviors During Public Health Crisis Are Cause for Concern
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today released a preview of 2019 data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and preliminary estimates for the first half of 2020. Alongside the release of the 2019 preview data and 2020 first-half fatality projections, the agency issued two companion reports, Special Report: Examination of the Traffic Safety Environment During the Second Quarter of 2020 and Drug and Alcohol Prevalence in Seriously and Fatally Injured Road Users Before and During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.
Traffic deaths decreased nationwide during 2019 as compared to 2018. There were 36,096 fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2019. This represents a decrease of 739 (down 2%) from the reported 36,835 fatalities in 2018, even though vehicle miles traveled increased by nearly 1%. As a result, the fatality rate for 2019 was 1.10 fatalities per 100 million VMT – the lowest rate since 2014, down from 1.14 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2018.
Fatalities decreased in most major traffic safety categories in 2019:
- Passenger vehicle occupants (down 2.8%)
- Motorcyclists (down 0.5%)
- Pedestrians (down 2.7%)
- Pedalcyclists (down 2.9%)
NHTSA also released preliminary fatality estimates for the first half of 2020. The second quarter of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 public health emergency, showed a continued decline in overall traffic fatalities. The FARS data indicate that an estimated 8,870 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the second quarter of 2020, a decrease of about 3.3% compared to the second quarter of 2019, which translates into 302 fewer fatalities as compared to the same period in 2019.
At the same time, at the height of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the total traffic volume decreased by more than 16% in the first six months of 2020. Because traffic volumes decreased more significantly than did the number of fatal crashes, the traffic fatality rate per 100 million VMT is projected to increase to 1.25 in the first half of 2020, up from 1.06 in the same period in 2019.
“Road safety is always our top priority, and while we are encouraged by today’s reports showing a continued decline in total fatalities in 2019 and into the first half of 2020, we are concerned by the trend since April showing an increased fatality rate,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator James Owens. “Now, more than ever, we should be watching ourselves for safe driving practices and encouraging others to do the same. It’s irresponsible and illegal to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, taking risks not only with one’s own life, but with the lives of others.”
To assist stakeholders in evaluating the trend and identifying countermeasures, NHTSA researchers compiled data from a wide variety of sources to produce a special report also issued today. The study suggests that during the height of the national public health emergency and associated lockdowns, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly, and that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Traffic data indicates that average speeds increased during the second quarter, and examples of extreme speeds became more common, while the evidence suggests that fewer people involved in crashes used their seat belts.
NHTSA also released a study of seriously or fatally injured road users at five participating trauma centers during this time, finding that between mid-March and mid-July almost two-thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. In particular, the number of such drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March, as compared to the previous six months, while marijuana use increased by about 50%.
Last week, NHTSA announced a series of workshops with stakeholders starting today to bring together State and local officials and safety advocates to discuss data and develop countermeasures to address these serious safety concerns. Over the summer, NHTSA launched a new campaign to remind motorists to drive safely and follow traffic safety laws. NHTSA’s high-visibility enforcement campaign to combat impaired driving ran through the Labor Day weekend and will be repeated later this year in time for the holidays.