In 2020, the number of miles that drivers covered in the United States fell dramatically. There were, for many months of the year, far fewer cars on the road.
One would think that would lead to a drastic drop in car accident injuries and fatalities. However, the opposite was actually true. Statistics show that the roads were more dangerous than they have been in 13 years. They also show that fatalities increased by about 24%, the biggest jump in nearly 100 years. It’s estimated that more than 42,000 people died in these accidents.
The major question that this raises, of course, is simple: How could this happen? Why is it that the roads were more dangerous, not less? It’s even more dire than if things had just stayed even in terms of injuries and fatalities, despite the falling traffic levels.
The issue, the NSC indicates, is that the level of traffic isn’t the problem: It’s the way people drive. Changes that they believe could help include:
- Lowering speed limits
- Providing better driver education
- Enforcing strict DUI laws
- Reducing distracted driving with anti-phone laws
- Using automated speed limit enforcement devices
- Using tiered license systems for drivers under 21
- Updating seatbelt laws
- Increasing bicycle safety
- Ensuring that motorcyclists wear helmets
All of these things could certainly help, but these were largely issues in 2019, just as they were in 2020. It’s not as if they were new last year, causing accidents to spike. In that light, it’s unclear why the spike happened when traffic levels were down, which may make it harder to prevent these accidents in the future.
One potential insight is that people may have felt more prone to driving unsafely — driving while intoxicated or while on the phone, for instance — because there were fewer cars around them. Could increasing traffic levels in 2021 actually make them focus on the road again, thus reducing accidents? Only time will tell, but it will be worth watching the statistics over the next year.
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