Fewer Cars on the Road but Traffic Deaths Rise

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COVID had more than one way to kill people.

Fatalities on state and national roadways that began to rise during 2020 has reached “an unacceptable crisis,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said earlier this year.

Federal traffic analysts say the number of highway deaths began to increase in 2020 during the first stages of the pandemic and continued to rise through the first nine months of 2021.

Alabama had an estimated 10.1% increase in the number of road fatalities, 731, over the first nine months of 2021, compared to 664 deaths in 2020.

Total state numbers for 2021 will not be available until this summer, said Tony Harris, Alabama Department of Transportation spokesman.

Even though roads emptied during the pandemic, the lighter traffic opened up room for Americans to indulge in their worst road habits: driving too fast, distracted or impaired by drugs or alcohol, according to highway traffic safety officials.

Speeding was especially evident during the lockdown phase of COVID, when fewer people were on the roads and more speed-related crashes occurred, Harris said.

Bad driving habits begun during COVID continue.

“We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of every day life in America,” Buttigieg said in January.

The first six months of 2020 recorded the highest number of road deaths –  38,680. That’s roughly a 7% increase from 2019 and the highest increase since 2006.

The percentage of increase for that time period is the highest since the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration began keeping records in 1975.

The United States leads other countries in the increase in traffic deaths for the first six months of 2021, when an estimated 20,160 people died, according to administration data. The puts the U.S. on track for more than 40,000 motor vehicle crash deaths in 2021, equivalent to the number of Americans who died last year in gun homicides, suicides and accidents combined, according to NHTSA.

NHTSA reports that the number of fatalities in 2020 is starker because deaths rose even as the number of miles driven by Americans dropped by 13%, to its lowest level in two decades.

While driving is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, highway deaths per miles driven have barely fallen, according to Axios, a news website based in Virginia. The average speed of American drivers has increased by 20% above the posted speed and resulted in an 11% increase in the number of highway fatals.

Another study found that two-thirds of 2021 fatalities involved drugs, alcohol and phones.

In January Buttigieg announced a national strategy including speed cameras to reduce the number of road deaths. Speed cameras are allowed in Alabama by city ordinance or state law.

Cities with speed cameras include Center Point, Midfield, Montgomery, Opelika, Phenix City, Selma and Tuscaloosa.

Special legislation enabled the city of Brantley in Crenshaw County to use speed cameras, Harris said. There have been numerous legal challenges to the cameras.