Spiking highway deaths across nation prompt increased enforcement

Despite fewer miles traveled, there were 10.5% more highway deaths in the first quarter of 2021 than 2020

By Ed Blazina
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The national dangerous driving trend that began with the start of the pandemic last year seems to be continuing unabated.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released estimates Thursday that show 8,730 people died on the nation's highways in the first quarter of 2021. That's a 10.5% increase over 2020 and occurred despite a 2.1% decrease in vehicle miles traveled.

Federal officials have noted that troubling trend of more fatal traffic accidents occurring with fewer vehicles on the road since the pandemic began in March 2020 because it runs counter to what has happened during previous economic downturns. Usually fewer vehicles mean fewer accidents, but officials say empty roads seem to have empowered more motorists to drive faster, drive drunk, drive distracted and refuse to wear seat belts, leading to deadly results.

"These new statistics are another troubling result of the dangerous driving that has plagued U.S. roads since the start of the pandemic," Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director of external engagement for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said in a news release.

"Too many motorists fail to recognize their risky driving poses a threat to themselves and others. These drivers must understand that people are dying needlessly on our roadways and they can help prevent these crashes by slowing down, stowing their cell phones, always driving sober and buckling up."

The new projections also show the death rate per 100 million miles driven rose to 1.26, up from 1.12 in the first quarter of 2020.

Ms. Fischer said many state highway safety offices are ramping up enforcement efforts, which it says are "proven to address speeding, drunk and drug-impaired driving, and seat belt use." They also should use community outreach and infrastructure improvements to fight the surge in deaths, she said.

In addition to the death projections, the NHTSA also released its 10th version of a publication called Countermeasures that Work. That 641-page document details enforcement measures to help fight drunken driving, speeding, underage drinking, seat belt use and other safety measures.

The federal report didn't release specific numbers for each state, but it divided the country into nine regions. Seven of them showed increases, including the region that includes Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, where deaths rose 9% in the first quarter.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Kuntch said the state is still reviewing traffic deaths so it isn't ready to release specific numbers, but preliminary numbers indicate deaths rose slightly in the first quarter. The state isn't introducing new programs at this time, but it maintains a $12.8 million safety program financed through federal funds to help state and municipal police with seat belt, aggressive driving and impaired driving enforcement.

It is participating in the National Crackdown on Impaired Driving Campaign that runs through Labor Day.

(c)2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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