Traffic deaths surged 10.5% in 2021, the most since 2005

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is projecting that 2021 was the grimmest year for traffic fatalities since 2005, with a 10.5% increase, according to the most recent data released Tuesday. NHTSA estimates there were 42,915 traffic fatalities on U.S. roads in 2021, capping a year that set records in the first quarter, the first half and into Q3.

Traffic deaths have gone up for three straight years. The preliminary figures would be the highest number of deaths since 2005, when 43,443 people were killed in traffic accidents. The 10.5% annual increase is also said to be the highest jump since the Fatality Analysis Reporting System began in 1975.

All 10 NHTSA regions posted increases in road deaths. Only six states managed to lower their road death tally; the other 44 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, posted jumps over 2020. Nor was it just one or two types of crashes that were to blame. Deaths from multi-vehicle crashes and crashes on urban roads were both up 16%, deaths in daytime crashes, among seniors over 65, involving pedestrians, and involving at least one large truck were all up more than 10%.

Compared to those, crashes that involved alcohol and were reported to police “only” registered a 5% bump, as did speeding-related crashes. 

The agency didn’t cite pandemic-related bad driving behavior as it did in 2020, when drivers traveled fewer miles but more people died. The findings did note the continued decline of seatbelt use as one of the culprits. NHTSA just kicked off at Click It or Ticket campaign to raise awareness about seatbelt use. Another culprit is more people spending more time on the road; data show that road users traveled about 325 billion more miles last year than in 2020, covering 3.23 trillion miles in total, a rise of 11.2%.

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Several programs included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are being rolled out to improve road safety, one of them a Safe Streets and Roads for All program that plans to spend $5 billion over five years on local efforts to reduce road crashes and fatalities, as announced Monday by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

The initiatives fall under NHSTA’s Safe System Approach, described as “a data-driven, holistic, and equitable method to roadway safety that fully integrates the needs of all users, anticipates the possibility of errors by drivers and other road users, and manages crash impact forces to levels tolerated by the human body. The Safe System Approach includes five elements: safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads and post-crash care.”

When it begins to show fruit, some local roads could look quite a bit different than they do now. The Federal Highway Administration said, “Examples include physically separating people traveling at different speeds, providing dedicated times for different users to move through a space, and alerting users to hazards and other road users.”