DETROIT – The number of people killed on the nation’s highways increased 4.6% in the first nine months of 2020 despite coronavirus lockdowns that restricted driving earlier in the year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 28,190 people died in traffic accidents between January and September last year, up from 26,941 in the same period in 2019. Final statistics for the full year will not be released until fall.
Authorities blamed the rise on risky driving behavior that developed when few vehicles were on the road at the start of the pandemic.
“Preliminary data tells us that during the national health emergency, fewer Americans drove, but those who did were at higher risk and had more fatal accidents,” the security agency said in a letter addressed to the country’s drivers.
Traffic fatalities rose 0.6% during the first quarter of 2020, but fell 1.1% in the second quarter as coronavirus lockdowns restricted movement. Deaths soared 13.1% between July and September, the agency said.
“We think the big culprit is speeding,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. Early in the pandemic, drivers found open roads and drove faster. The behavior continued even as traffic volumes recovered, Adkins said.
“An important factor here is the lack of application. We are hearing from many states that traffic stops have decreased during COVID-19. Drivers feel like they can speed up and get away with it, ”he said.
The NHTSA said recent reports show a 22% increase in vehicle speeds in several metropolitan areas over pre-pandemic figures. Additionally, one study found that 65% of drivers treated at trauma centers who were injured in serious accidents had drugs or alcohol in their systems in the past year. It was 50.6% before the pandemic, NHTSA said. The agency also said that fewer people use seat belts.
The agency is telling people not to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, to wear seat belts, and to slow down to stay safe. It also says that people should make sure their children are in the right car seat for their size.