The early months of the pandemic saw a sudden decrease of cars on the road and seemingly eliminated rush hour overnight. The lack of traffic emboldened drivers to drive at high rates of speed on the highways and engage in behaviors that endangered other drivers on surface streets. As time passed and more people returned to driving, the reckless behavior of drivers failed to abate. Now there are more incidences of road rage, failure to obey traffic signals and signs without consideration for oncoming traffic, and poor decisions made before and during the time behind the wheel, resulting in an increase in driving-related fatalities that reversed a multi-year trend of declining traffic deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the continued high rate of driving-related deaths is caused by drivers who take risks at high speeds, get behind the wheel after drinking or taking drugs, and don’t wear their seat belts. In response, the NHTSA has taken a multi-pronged approach to reducing the number of roadway fatalities alongside increased enforcement activity by state and local police departments. It still remains to be seen what the future holds in terms of a return to a more cautious and safe way of driving, but there is hope that people will eventually slow down, make better driving decisions, and be less likely to engage in impaired driving.
The Increase in Driving Deaths Since the Start of the Pandemic
Traffic volume across the country decreased sharply as people stayed home in record numbers. Yet the number of driving-related deaths skyrocketed despite fewer cars on the road, surprising many who expected the numbers to drop in accordance with less traffic. In 2019, a total of 36,096 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes. In 2020, an estimated 38,680 people died. It was found that 31,720 people died in the first nine months of 2021, a 12% increase from the same time period in 2020 (28,325 deaths). These numbers show that people’s driving behavior worsened over time instead of getting better as more people returned to the roadways. The number of traffic deaths in the first nine months of 2021 surpassed the highest point since 2006.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the increase is the fact that the NHTSA recorded the largest increase in traffic fatalities ever in the first half of 2021. Over 20,000 people died in a six-month period, an almost 20% increase from the same period of time in 2020. Yet the total miles driven during this time dropped by more than 13% as more people were in lockdown and the number of people working from home increased. It was determined that for every 100 million miles driven in 2020, 1.37 people died, resulting in an increase of 23% from 2019. Numbers for 2021 aren’t available yet.
Why Drivers Continue to Drive Recklessly
The pandemic brought on a huge psychological shift in terms of how people behaved in all aspects of their daily lives. Where once they may have thought twice about drinking or doing drugs before they got behind the wheel, they decided that it was OK to take the risk of driving while impaired. The same goes for speeding and driving recklessly, along with not putting on a seatbelt.
Experts feel that the reason behind these behaviors comes down to a reflection of how people’s mindsets were changed by the pandemic. The changes in daily life and restrictions on activities have resulted in more people feeling isolated, lonely, and depressed than ever before. When people are feeling down, they’re more likely to reach for alcohol or a drug of choice to check out from reality for a while. They’re also more likely to drink or use more of a given substance than they would during pre-pandemic times. In sum, a sense of fatalism has gripped the minds of many, and they take it out on themselves and others by making bad decisions.
The increase in motor vehicle deaths aligns with increases in alcohol sales, drug overdoses, and murders. Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, views reckless driving as a type of rebellion. He calls it “arousal breakout,” and stated to the Los Angeles Times: “You’ve been cooped up, locked down, and have restrictions you chafe at. So, if you can have an arousal breakout, you want to take it.”
Another factor in the increase in car-related deaths is the fact people are more likely to brandish guns in response to a perceived slight. There’s no arguing the fact that the pandemic made people more short-tempered in general, and more prone to road rage. Drivers who carry weapons while they drive have less inhibition when it comes to brandishing and using their guns to threaten other drivers whom they perceive to have cut them off or to be tailgating. Guns added another statistic to auto-related deaths that was once uncommon.
Just About Every Part of the U.S. Saw an Increase in Deaths in 2021
Fatalities have increased in 41 states, risen in rural areas and cities, congested highways and empty back roads, night, day, weekdays and weekends, and in every age group between 16 and 65. The NHTSA divides the U.S. into 10 regions for the purpose of tracking driving statistics. It was found that NHTSA Region 10, covering Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, experienced a 26% increase in traffic fatalities in the first half of 2021.
The state of Texas saw a total of 3,893 people killed in auto accidents in 2020, an increase from 3,623 deaths in 2019. As of November 2021, over 3,200 people were killed, prompting TxDOT to urge drivers to take more responsibility for their actions when behind the wheel of a car. Experts feel that it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach involving law enforcement activity, public safety awareness campaigns, and a willingness to engage in defensive driving on the part of most drivers.
Traffic and Law Enforcement Agencies are Taking Action to Reduce Incidents of Reckless Driving
A lack of police enforcement during the height of the pandemic emboldened drivers to take risks they normally wouldn’t during pre-pandemic times. This perceived lack of consequences for poor behavior behind the wheel led to more and more people driving without regard for others. In some areas of the country, this has resulted in an increase in road rage incidents and serious accidents resulting in death. Police departments responded by taking precautionary measures, such as increasing patrols and placing manned cars in highly visible locations.
The NHTSA has released almost $260 million in highway safety grants to highway safety offices across the U.S. for the purpose of supporting traffic safety priorities. The funds are intended to be used in safety programs that include high-visibility enforcement campaigns, enforcement of state laws on seat belt use and reckless driving, and support programs that teach parents how to properly use child safety seats.
How You Can Prevent Car Accident Deaths
When you get behind the wheel of a car, you enter into a social contract to share the road with other drivers. Not everyone drives the same, but you can rely on most people to obey traffic laws and signals by and large. When you see someone driving recklessly and ignoring the rules of the road, don’t chase them or attempt to block them. You don’t know if someone’s willing to risk their vehicle and their car to make a senseless point. Always yield or move out of the way of a reckless driver whenever possible, and let them get ahead of you. Yes, it’s aggravating that someone is breaking the laws seemingly without consequences, but you set an example to other drivers around you and encourage them to engage in defensive driving as well.
As you drive, focus on the behavior of the other drivers around you and react accordingly. Don’t honk your horn unnecessarily, and always yield to oncoming traffic. When you’re on the highway, stay in the lane that matches your speed if you’re traveling for a distance. When it comes to using your turn signals, it’s far better to let people know in advance about the move you’re going to make and allow them to slow down so you can merge or make your turn. You’ll still get to your destination in a timely fashion, and you’ll have a less stressful time doing so.
Been in an Accident? Call Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law Today for Help
If you’ve been involved in a car accident and suffered injuries as a result, call the lawyers at Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law today for help at (713) 973-8888 or toll-free 1 (800) 444-5000. Terry Bryant has been practicing in the area of personal injury law for over 35 years and served for 22 years as a municipal judge in Spring Valley Village, Texas. He uses his experience to provide strong representation to his clients and protect their rights. Mr. Bryant and his team of personal injury lawyers at Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law are ready and willing to fight against corporations and insurance companies on behalf of their clients, no matter what it takes.