Americans are driving more recklessly in the pandemic, data shows

By Danielle Ling


Despite the heavy drop in traffic and travel, vehicular deaths were up throughout the U.S. in 2020

Impaired driving surged in 2020. According to the NHTSA, in March 2020, 21.3% of vehicle fatalities involved alcohol, which increased to 26.9% by mid-July. (Photo by Getty Images)

Traffic and auto accidents plummeted in 2020, but U.S. roads and highways didn’t become any safer. Despite the drop in driving, the number of vehicular deaths per miles traveled rose throughout the U.S. in 2020.


For example, New York City, the original epicenter of the coronavirus, is on course this year to record the highest number of deaths of drivers and passengers since 2014, according to city officials.


A recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) compared traffic data from before and during the pandemic and found that roads and highways are more hazardous in the COVID era.


According to the NHTSA, the number of people killed compared to the number of overall miles traveled rose in 2020 from 1.06 deaths per 100 million vehicles miles traveled to 1.25 in 2020 — an increase of nearly 18%. This figure only worsened, nearly doubling in the second quarter of 2020 to 1.42 deaths per 100 million miles.


One of the reasons for these worsening numbers may correlate with an increase in drunk driving.


The story behind the numbers


According to the NHTSA, in March 2020, 21.3% of vehicle fatalities involved alcohol, which increased to 26.9% by mid-July. The presence of marijuana was seen in 21.4% of fatal accidents in March and increased to 31.2%. Opioid-related incidents also increased from 7.6% to 12.9%, the report states.


The NHTSA study also concluded that drivers exhibited a higher prevalence of drug use during this time, with almost 65% testing positive for one or more active drugs in their system. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this number was 50.8%.


The NHTSA report also looked at ejection rates, which saw an increase among males, people who lived in rural areas, and individuals who were 18 to 34 years old.


Empty roads pave the way for trouble


Like it did with many other aspects of life, the pandemic grounded travel and traffic to a halt in 2020. So why did driving get riskier? Especially when auto fatalities in the U.S. had been on a slow but promising decline?


The reasons may be fairly obvious. Presented with empty roads and a distanced police presence, drivers were, at best, much less cautious in 2020; at worse, they were simply reckless, speeding more, not wearing seatbelts and driving while impaired.


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