What’s behind the recent surge in U.S. traffic fatalities?

On Behalf of | Oct 13, 2021 | Car accidents

If a pollster walked up to wherever you are at in Dallas right now and asked if you lead a dangerous life, you would probably say, as most North Texas residents would, that your life is not a particularly dangerous one and that you stay away from potentially life-threatening situations.

The reality is that most of us flirt with danger on a daily basis when we get behind the wheel of our car, SUV, pick-up or van. Though you might drive cautiously and have a perfectly clean driving record, you are regardless at risk of being seriously injured in an auto accident or in a worst-case scenario, killed in a violent wreck.

And the odds of staying safe are getting worse.

Grim Lone Star numbers

More than 3,200 have been killed in crashes on Texas roadways so far this year, up 10 percent over the same period last year, according to statistics from the state Department of Transportation.

Driving is easily the most dangerous thing most of us do every day – and it’s getting more dangerous because car wrecks are getting more severe.

Traffic down, fatality rate up

In 2019, there were 39,107 people killed in crashes, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Last year, when traffic volume was down by 13 percent due to the pandemic, auto accident fatalities surged 8 percent to 42,060.

This year is on pace to be even worse.

Getting worse, not better

The NSC said between January and June 2021, traffic fatalities soared 16 percent over last year’s grim total.

Experts say that the spike in last year’s fatality rate happened because with fewer vehicles on roads, drivers freed from traffic congestion sped up to dangerous levels. That made crashes more violent, injuries more severe and fatalities more frequent.

In addition, more drivers last year didn’t wear seat belts and more drove drunk than in 2019.

Experts are unsure why last year’s surge in the fatality rate is carrying over to this year, though traffic volume is back to pre-pandemic levels. Have some people held on to reckless driving habits acquired last year? With the nation now well into its second full year of Covid-19, are there signs that national mental health is eroding?

Solving the road safety riddle

A recent Vox article on the “car crash epidemic” noted that though overall traffic volume is near normal, fewer people are driving during rush hour. That means roads are not as congested at predictable times, which results in more driving at elevated speeds, which puts drivers, passengers and pedestrians at higher risk.

The article offered a solution to the disturbing traffic trends, found in a combination of improved road designs (with lots of traffic-calming features), decreased speed limits (automatically enforced by traffic cameras), design refinements in SUVs and pick-ups (to reduce weight and minimize blind spots), and safety-first policy changes at local levels, spurred by a carrot-and-stick approach to federal funding.

Would it work? No one knows. But we do know there’s a road safety riddle that needs to be solved.