People Drove Less During the Pandemic, But Car Crash Fatalities Rose 24%. Why?

The open roads make it easier to speed, but there may be other reasons.

police line

Istock/Getty Images

The National Safety Council reports that 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. That's an 8% increase in the absolute number over the previous year. However, because of the pandemic, the number of miles driven dropped 13%. Divide the number of miles driven by the number of deaths, and you get the rate of death, which was up 24%, the biggest spike since the NSC started measuring. The NSC says that "It underscores the nation’s persistent failure to prioritize safety on the roads, which became emptier but far more deadly."

“It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “These data expose our lack of an effective roadway safety culture. It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively, and NSC stands ready to assist all stakeholders, including the federal government.”

The NSC also notes that there were 4,795,000 injuries that required a medical consultation, which in total means that about 1.5% of the entire U.S. population was injured or killed in a car crash in 2020, a year when so many people are not even going outside.

The NSC is part of the Road to Zero coalition, and it is calling for all those things we have heard about so many times before:

  • Equitable implementation of roadway safety laws, policies, procedures, infrastructure improvements is sorely needed. 
  • Mandatory ignition interlocks for convicted drunk drivers (why not for every car?).
  • Lowering speed limits.
  • Automated enforcement.
  • And that "Communities and municipalities should adopt comprehensive programs for pedestrian and bicyclist safety."

We would have also liked to see some of the initiatives that they are doing in Europe:

road deaths
European Transport Safety Council

Vision Zero advocates, those who believe that no loss of life on the road is acceptable, say that road design is not given nearly enough priority. If people are driving a car capable of cruising at 100 miles per hour on a road that is designed for high speeds (as most in the U.S. are) they are going to drive at high speeds; it's hard not to. The road has to be designed to slow drivers down. The lack of traffic and the beckoning open road are likely the main reasons everyone was driving so fast; it's baked into the design. As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) noted in a press release, one has to think about the entire picture.

"Reducing vehicle speeds is a central component of a comprehensive approach to preventing injuries and deaths in crashes known as 'safe systems.' The safe systems approach focuses on how road user behavior, road design and operation, vehicle design, and emergency response all must work together to make roads safer for everyone who uses them. Speed is an overarching factor within this model that is critical for creating a safe road environment." 

But What About Actually Holding Drivers Accountable?

We have often complained that in North America there is too much weight placed on enforcement and not on design. As the Police Commissioner in Utrecht noted at the start of Vision Zero there,

“If something doesn’t work, it is usually wrong. Before we start enforcing, we first count how many people break the rules. If the percentage is too high, enforcement is pointless. It would be much more meaningful to make speeding impossible in such locations.”

But another reason people may be speeding so much is that they know that whatever happens, the odds that they will actually be held accountable are really low. Because drivers are operating heavy machinery that requires some skill, one has to be guilty of serious negligence. In the famous case of the first Citibike rider killed in New York the driver's lawyer claimed that "For centuries, the common-law courts have distinguished between ordinary negligence which should not form the basis of a criminal charge, and negligence so egregious as to be deserving of criminal punishment." In other words, "it was an accident."

In Canada, the Supreme Court confirmed it; as we titled our post on the subject, "It's OK to Kill Someone With a Car if You Didn't Mean It."

"Because driving is an inherently dangerous activity, the trier of fact must not infer simply from the fact that the driving was, objectively viewed, dangerous, that the accused’s level of care was a marked departure from that expected of a reasonable person in the same circumstances. "

It used to be that to get convicted you pretty much had to do three things: be drunk, speeding, and leave the scene. But now you can't even be sure of that. In New York City, almost nobody gets caught; according to City Limits:

"Overall, police are only making arrests in about 1 percent of all hit-and-run crashes each year, a rate that has not budged since 2013. Summonses are issued in some of the cases involving only property damage, but still only in about 1 percent of such cases. Last year, [2017] only 9 percent of hit-and-run drivers who injured someone in New York City were arrested, according to NYPD data. Even in the most serious cases, the majority of hit-and-run drivers see no consequences. In 2017, only 24 of the 62 hit-and-runs that resulted in critical injury or death led to arrest."

Even when they do get arrested, the penalties are ridiculous. The Attorney General of South Dakota left the scene after hitting what he said was a deer (he went back the next day and found the body of the man he had hit) and was charged with a misdemeanor. This week it turned out that the victim's glasses were in his car. “They’re Joe’s glasses, so that means his face came through your windshield,” one of the detectives told him. He is still Attorney General.

An outrageous example happened just north of Toronto on the same day that the NSC and IIHS released their reports. A woman who hit a cyclist from behind, had a look at the victim, drove to a coffee shop and made up a story about her SUV being damaged in a parking lot, and then admitted all to the police the next day, just got sentenced. According to the Star:

"Despite citing the 'depravity' of her actions in his sentencing, Justice Edward Prutschi said Forrestall should not go to jail, in part due to her asthma diagnosis and the possible spread of COVID-19 in jails. Instead, for her crime of failing to stop at the scene of a crash that caused death, Forrestall was sentenced to house arrest at her Markham home for 12 months, two-years probation and a three-year driving ban."

House arrest means that she has to be inside her home between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Many have noted that this is less onerous than the COVID lockdown that everyone in the area is living through right now. But hey, she showed remorse and suffers from asthma.

Jess Spieker, Friends and Family for Safe Streets
Jess Spieker, Friends and Family for Safe Streets. Lloyd Alter at Toronto City Hall

As Toronto activist Jess Spieker of the advocacy group Friends and Family for Safe Streets (and who was also the victim in a car crash) told the Sun, “It makes me feel sick and it’s beyond frustrating. It sends the message that if you’re going to kill somebody, do it with your car because it’s not a big deal.”


Fasten bike to tree
Lloyd Alter

We spend all this time advocating for walking and cycling for health, for better cities, and to fight climate change. Yet I am still often nervous on my bike, especially at intersections where I am certain someone is going to blow the light or make a left turn into me. I worry every time my daughter cycles to work. I have been to way too many ghost bike rides where I knew the victim.

It's time to listen to the NSC and the IIHS and the victims of all this carnage, to slow down the cars, to redesign the streets. Almost half a million injuries and deaths; according to the NSC, The estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries, and property damage in 2020 was $474.4 billion. It's all too much to bear.