US Traffic Deaths Surging During Pandemic

Carolyn Crist

February 15, 2022

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The US is reporting its highest increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s.

Deaths from vehicle crashes had been declining since the late 1960s, The New York Times reported, due to vehicle improvements, lower speed limits, and less drunk driving. The annual death rate from crashes was near its lowest level in 2019.

But crashes and deaths began surging in the summer of 2020. Despite a decline in driving at the time, there was an increase in aggressive driving. Crashes continued to grow as people returned to the roads later in the pandemic.

"We're all a bit at the end of our rope on things," Art Markman, PhD, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, told the newspaper.

"When you get angry in the car, it generates energy — and how do you dissipate that energy?" he said. "Well, one way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator."

The number of per-capita vehicle deaths rose 17.5% from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2021, the newspaper reported. That marks the largest 2-year increase since World War II.

In many cases, the vehicle crashes have been linked to erratic or risky behavior, such as speeding, running red lights, not wearing a seat belt, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to a report from the US Department of Transportation.

The increase in traffic fatalities has disproportionately affected low-income neighborhoods and Native and Black American neighborhoods, according to an analysis from the Governors Highway Safety Association. In 2020, overall US traffic deaths rose about 7%, but among Black Americans, traffic deaths increased 23%.

There are several reasons, including differences in vehicle quality, road conditions, and access to crosswalks, the Times reported. The recent increase in pedestrian deaths has been particularly high.

What's more, essential workers, who couldn't stay home and work remotely during the pandemic, were affected by higher traffic deaths.

"There's a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated, enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving," Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, told the Times.

"We, in our vehicles, are given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn't face to face," he said.

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