November 10, 2021


Early in January of this year, 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a press release titled An Open Letter to the Driving Public which accompanied the release of their third quarter crash stats. The press release covers some unfortunate trends in statistics regarding fatal automotive accidents. However, given past trends, this turn for the worst is not entirely a surprise. The United States has a record of having some of the worst drivers in the world, as well as overall poor street planning and overall low driver qualifications. That fatal accidents have gone up during what is becoming widely regarded as one of the darkest years of American history is not a shock.

But just how much an increase has there been? Depending on how you look at it, 2020 might not have been so bad. The first half of the year (Jan–Jun) saw a 2% reduction in automotive fatalities compared to 2019, with 2016 being the worst year for that period in the last decade or so. The most recent crash stats report released by the NHTSA, however, covered the third quart of 2020 (Jul–Sep) and revealed a 13% increase for that period when compared to 2019; and with a total surpassing the next highest count for that quarter by over a thousand, which was 2017 with a total of just over 10,000. So despite the early decrease in fatalities, for the first three-quarters of the year, 2020 saw an overall 4.6% increase in fatalities.

This data, however, does not extend into the fourth quarter of 2020; that data is still being compiled by the NHTSA. Nonetheless, the data we do have is disturbing, as are the implications made by the NHTSA in their press release regarding the driving public of the country. The NHTSA announced that while the number of drivers on the road over the course of 2020 was lower, due to the national health emergency, those that did drive took more risks while driving and a higher rate of fatal crashes followed. This statement is supported by the most recent crash stats, which show an increase in fatalities per miles traveled between January and September. In fact, though the number of fatalities during the first half of the year went down compared to last year, the rate of fatalities per miles traveled still increased. And the NHTSA has some indication of why this is the case.

Specifically, the NHTSA gives three emerging statistics which explain the increase in fatalities. The release states that “one recent report showed a median 22% increase in speeds in select metropolitan areas…sixty-five percent of drivers in trauma centers after a serious crash tested positive for drugs or alcohol…in April, double the average number of people were thrown from vehicles during crashes, indicating no seat belts.” These statements, as well as the full press release as a whole, indicate that the bulk of the problem stems from bad drivers and bad driving practices. And the implication being made is likely a confirmation of common sense—people that are not well, that are experiencing depression and anxiety, or that are experiencing other powerful negative emotions make poor choices.

It isn’t a surprise at all, that drunk driving increased over the course of 2020, as substance abuse as a whole increased over the course of the year. According to a study shared by the CDC, there was a sharp increase to the number of adults in the US that claimed to be struggling with mental health in late June. During that time, in the height of the pandemic, the study found that there were increases in adults that experienced stress or depression symptoms, experienced trauma or stressor-related disorder symptoms, started or increased substance abuse, and contemplated suicide. The study also states that these mental health struggles were felt worse by those of low income households, young adults, ethic minorities, and people considered essential workers—generally, groups that continued to drive a normal or greater amount during the periods of time where less people drove.

While there has been some recovery since that period of time in regards to mental health, things aren’t exactly better. And while the full annual report for automotive fatalities shows a less dramatic increase overall for the year, this period of increased fatal accidents is troubling; as is the general decreased mental wellness. Staying positive is key to making good decisions, particularly in environments where one’s choices can affect others dramatically.

Some of the closing words of the release by the NHSTA remain the most impactful of the statement. “Driving is a privilege, and with it comes the responsibility of protecting yourself and those around you. Traffic laws and the rules of the road are there to protect all of us. Following the rules of the road makes it much more likely that you will get home safely.” Don’t take your privilege for granted. We all have a responsibility to keep roads safe for all drivers, and we can do better.

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