Despite reduced traffic, 2020 was a deadly year on US highways

On Behalf of | May 3, 2021 | Motor Vehicle Accidents

As millions of Americans stayed home for much of 2020 due to the pandemic, roadways were mostly uncongested with vehicle traffic. Safety experts hoped that would translate into fewer motor vehicle fatalities and one of the few bright spots in an extremely challenging year.

However, the faint hope for a silver lining disappeared when the National Safety Council (NSC) announced that traffic deaths rose significantly in 2020 compared to 2019. The reason? The NSC says too many drivers thought emptier streets meant they could drive faster.

National statistics illustrate a spike in the highway death rate

The NSC analysis of the previous year highlights an abnormal rise in traffic deaths. The key takeaways were:

  • 42,060 people died in crashes for an 8% increase in fatalities
  • Vehicle miles traveled by motorists declined by 13%
  • When taking those two factors into account, the death rate jumped by 24%

The 24% spike in fatalities is the highest since the NSC started measuring traffic deaths in 1924.

The Keystone State also saw a rise in 2020 highway fatalities

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) recently released information on traffic deaths for 2020. The data shows:

  • The state also saw an increase in fatalities – 1,129 in 2020 compared to 1,059 in 2019
  • The rise amounts to a 6% increase
  • 2019 saw the lowest number of fatalities, and 2020 was the second-lowest
  • Highway traffic declined by 20% in 2020

Speeding and other risky behavior blamed

The NSC says vehicle speeds increased by an average of 35% to 40% in urban areas across the U.S. in 2020 due to the extra room on the highway. In data taken from police stations across the country, the group says:

  • Arrests for speeding and reckless driving spiked nationwide
  • Large numbers of crash victims were under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Fewer victims wore their seat belts than in previous years

PennDOT did not specify a reason for increased highway deaths in the state. The agency pointed out that fatalities are still trending downward overall, but more work is needed to make state highways safer for everyone.