If you’ve recently wondering if everyone forgot how to drive during the pandemic, there’s a chance you’re not going crazy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published its early report of 2021 road fatalities and the numbers really aren’t pretty. Last year, 42,915 American road users lost their lives. That’s that highest figure in 16 years, and more than 117 people per day, roughly 4.9 people per hour, or one person every twelve minutes — a little bit terrifying when you think of it. While this fatality rate of 1.33 per 100 million miles traveled is a drop compared to 2020’s figure of 1.34, it’s up significantly from 2019’s pre-pandemic figure of 1.10. So how are all these people dying? Are there significantly more reckless speeders on the road? Are fatal DUI crashes increasing at an alarming rate? While those are contributing factors, the bulk reality is much less headline-grabbing.
Out of the 42,915 people killed on the roads last year, 21,837 were drivers, up 12 percent from last year. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise as fatal multi-vehicle crashes are up 16 percent year-over-year from 17,083 to 19,777. Hey, since nobody was on the road in 2020, who on earth were drivers going to hit? Well, a lot if I’m being honest. While overall distance driven was down in 2020, fatalities were up over 2019 by 2,279. In fact, 2020 was the deadliest year on American roads since 2007. NHTSA blames an increase in risky driving for this jump in fatalities, with 45 percent of 2020 fatalities involving speeding, intoxication, or lack of seat belt use. Couple risky behavior with an increase in miles driven, and it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the death count rose for 2021.
Speaking of risky behavior, the proportion of fatal crashes where intoxication was a factor rose 16 percent from 2019 to 2020, then another 5 percent in 2021. If there’s any silver lining, intoxicated fatalities fell towards the end of 2021. Hopefully people will continue to make better decisions and we’ll see fewer intoxicated road deaths this year.
Another driving habit affecting fatal crashes is speeding. Last year, 11,780 fatalities were related to speeding. That’s 27.45 percent of all fatal crashes, 522 more fatalities than last year when speeding-related fatalities made up 28.99 percent of all fatal crashes, and 2,188 more than in 2019, when speeding-related fatalities made up 26.38 percent of all fatal crashes. Honestly, I expected this year’s number to be higher given how more people are driving more often than in 2020. Plus, a 2016 AAA report found that 48 percent of Americans reported going 15 mph over the speed limit in the month before the survey and roughly 45 percent admitted to going 10 mph above the speed limit on a residential street in the month before the survey. A similar report in 2020 found that 51 percent of drivers who increased their time on the roads in 2020 admitted to driving 10 mph above the speed limit on a residential street in the month before the survey. I guess those empty roads filled back up really quickly.
Next to drivers, fatalities involving pedestrians and large trucks are way, way up by 13 percent each. 7,432 pedestrians died on American roads last year, while 5,601 Americans died in collisions with large trucks. In 2019, the last year of normal pre-pandemic traffic, those figures were 6,272 and 5,032 respectively. With large trucks, the solution is often easy – give them a wide berth. It’s no secret that trucks have enormous blind spots and long stopping distances. The more room around trucks, the better.
As for pedestrians, that’s a tougher one to answer. On the one hand, I love cars. There’s something so wonderful about driving through the city at night, and I wouldn’t try to tote home a coffee table on public transit because I’d look like a complete asshole. On the other hand, I’m more often a pedestrian than a driver. What can I say, living in a walkable community is awesome.
Let’s start with the easiest thing to change and run through to the hardest. First up, the rise of SUVs. By now, it’s well-established that SUVs pose a greater risk to pedestrians than cars do. In 2018, the Detroit Free Press did some digging and found a 2015 NHTSA report that found SUVs and light trucks to be two to three times deadlier to pedestrians than cars. A small study run by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that fatal crashes between SUVs and pedestrians increased by 81 percent between 2009 and 2016 and found that even modern SUVs with deformable bumpers are significantly deadlier to pedestrians than cars are. Another IIHS study found that SUVs are 63 percent more likely than cars to hit pedestrians while turning.
At this point it’s really hard to argue that SUVs aren’t killing people, yet the government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy program is enabling manufacturers to keep cranking out SUVs. So how do we fix this? Well, a light truck charge to enter urban centers in an SUV or pickup truck would be great. There’s no need to ban large vehicles, but a gentle stick to encourage urban use for things like hauling furniture would keep casually-driven light trucks out of pedestrian-dense downtown cores. Make it tax-deductible so light commercial vehicles aren’t screwed over and bam. Of course, it would be absolutely hilarious to set up height restrictors at the entrances to nightclub districts and other pedestrian-heavy areas, but that might be a bit barbaric. Another way to fix this would be by relaxing the footprint model implemented in 2011 that heavily incentivized SUV production. It seems absurd that small cars should be held to much higher fuel economy targets when they’re already easier on the environment than large vehicles. As a bonus, they’re cheap to buy, cheap to run and kinder to pedestrians than light trucks.
[Editor’s Note: There’s been a lot of chatter around Twitter and various media publications calling for a ban on SUVs. I’m not for that at all. As someone who grew up in Germany, I love walkable cities, but an SUV ban infringes upon freedom of choice, plus it’s a slippery slope and it’s hard to enforce; it’s also just a lazy approach. I’m all for challenging automakers to improve pedestrian protection across all vehicles, perhaps to the point where only certain designs require specific pedpro countermeasures. “Ban SUVs,” though? I’m not about it. -DT]
Next, let’s look at pedestrian behavior. Just as the choices of SUV drivers increase pedestrian fatalities, so do the choices of pedestrians. An aggregation of NHTSA data shows that between 2010 and 2015, 68.4 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred when pedestrians attempted to cross roads at points without intersections or crosswalks. I know that it can be a bit of a hike between crosswalks in some jurisdictions, but until road designers install additional crosswalks, a bit more walking could make the difference between getting home safely and not getting home at all.
In addition, drunk walking appears to be a bigger problem than I thought. The NHTSA’s latest complete pedestrian fatality report from 2019 says that 31 percent of all pedestrians killed in crashes had a blood alcohol level of 0.8 g/dl or greater, and that includes people under the age of 21. I know that alcohol impairs judgment but damn. Maybe take things easy and keep your friends in check the next time you go out.
Finally, there’s road design, which I touched on in the previous paragraph. A vast number of arterial roadways in America are technically known as stroads. If that sounds like a gross word, that’s because stroads are pretty awful. Take one cup of higher-speed multi-lane road design, add the business entrances and pedestrian walkways of a street and presto, you have a road design that does absolutely nothing well. They suck for pedestrians because cars keep popping in and out of vehicle entrances to stores, creeping onto the sidewalk because huge flashy signs prevent drivers from seeing shit. It also sucks to exit a store onto a stroad as a driver because of that appalling visibility and a certain moral instinct not to inconvenience pedestrians. Driving along the stroad? That’s also terrible. Stop, go, stop, go, stop, go, all the way along the goddamn street. It’s slow, it’s inefficient, and the shitshow of bidirectional traffic on the stroad and at most intersections doesn’t make things much easier. I mean come on, arterial roads are the perfect use case for one-way streets. Road designers and city planners really need to do better, plastering up lower speed limit signs and installing speed cameras can only help so much with infrastructure this bad.
Honestly, as much as new urbanists rant about pedestrian safety being a one-sided issue, it’s going to take everyone to cut pedestrian deaths in America. There are these great concepts called compromise and responsibility that civilized people hold dear. So talk your parents out of buying that Canyonero, put a hand out when your drunk friend tries to dart into traffic, and relentlessly tell your city councilors that you want safer road design rather than the band-aid of lower speed limits that drivers will continue to ignore. It’ll take a lot to cut overall road deaths too, from better driver behavior to better infrastructure design. I know that road safety is often a dreary subject, but it’s our responsibility to keep roads safe so we can keep our friends and family alive while still enjoying the cars we know and love. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of state-imposed, wallet-crushing cure.
Lead photo credit: Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com). Licensed under CC BY 2.0.