NHTSA report: 2021 deadliest year on U.S. roads since 2005

NHTSA report: 2021 deadliest year on U.S. roads since 2005

It’s been a dangerous decade on U.S. highways, and the last two years have been among the worst.

A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released on Tuesday said 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2021. That’s a 10.5% increase from 2020 and the deadliest year since 2005. It’s part of a decade-long trend of danger, with motor vehicle fatalities increasing 32% since deaths hit a recent low of 32,479 in 2011.

There was some positive news, as the fatality rate decreased in the last three-quarters of the year, according to the NHTSA.

“That report shows the increased trend in fatalities in 2020 has continued into 2021, and the increased trend in fatality rate per 100 million VMT [vehicle miles traveled] in 2020 continued into the first quarter of 2021 but decreased during the second, third and the fourth quarters of 2021,” the report states.

U.S. annual crash fatalities, 2010-22/Credit: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

Overall, however, it was a very bad year to be driving in the U.S. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said this is further evidence of a crisis on our highways and roads. It calls for urgent action to reduce the toll.

Advocates is “an alliance of consumer, medical, public health, law enforcement, safety groups, insurance companies and agents working together to make America’s roads safer,” according to its website.

“Fatalities across a number of categories increased from 2020 to 2021, including pedestrians [up 13%], crashes involving a large truck [up 13%], speeding [up 5%] and alcohol-involved crashes [up 5%],” it states in a release issued Tuesday. “Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety agrees with NHTSA deputy administrator Steven Cliff, who is calling this crisis on our roadways ‘urgent and preventable.’”

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase told DOT Newswire that these were grim statistics to see.

“The fact that 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in and of itself is horrific news. Fatalities were up across most categories reported,” Chase said. “Only five states experienced a decrease in crash deaths last year compared to 2020, while eight others plus Puerto Rico saw increases of 20% or more. In addition to the overall spike in fatalities, we continue to see surges in deaths involving speeding, impairment and lack of seat belt use, all of which have been major contributors to crashes, according to NHTSA.”

 She said while there was a decline in fatalities in the last three quarters of 2021, the numbers were still up based on previous years.

“Even though the fatality rate in the last three quarters of 2021 declined compared to 2020, the fatality rate in each of those last three quarters was 16% to 23% above the 2019 pre-pandemic numbers,” Chase said. “Worse still, those numbers are 15% to 30% above 2014, the year of the lowest annual fatality rate. We raised concerns that behaviors contributing to spikes in crash deaths during the pandemic despite far less traffic would continue as motorists returned to the roads. These latest reports unfortunately seem to confirm our predictions.”

 She said without “swift and decisive action at the local, state and federal levels” to improve roadway safety, there is no reason to expect a decline in current trends.

“The good news is that effective solutions are available,” Chase said. “A long list of overdue safety rulemakings required by Congress in previous transportation bills and pending rulemakings which were included in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will make a substantial improvement once fully in effect. Examples are minimum performance standards for automatic emergency braking (AEB), impaired driving prevention technology, rear seat belt reminders and pediatric ‘hot car’ detection and alert systems. These safety technologies will be game changers for saving lives. We need the U.S. Department of Transportation to move forward on these and other proven safety upgrades without delay.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, there has been clear evidence of increases in reckless driving, including speeding, impairment and lack of seat belt use, according to Advocates, all of which caused more deaths.

“Advocates had strong concerns that these behaviors would continue as traffic volumes increased from peak pandemic lows. These fears appear to be coming to fruition,” the group states. “The public is justifiably alarmed by these developments as shown in a public opinion survey released this year by Advocates. Acting swiftly to advance solutions at both the federal and state levels to prevent crashes and save lives is the only acceptable response in the face of such overwhelming evidence and public distress.”

It’s not only driver behavior. Advocates said there is a need for minimum performance standards for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). The U.S. Department of Transportation could mandate these, it said.

“This includes requiring proven crash-avoidance technologies in all new vehicles such as automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning (LDW) and blind spot detection (BSD) as required in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, Pub. L. 117-58),” Advocates states. “When appropriate, these performance standards should account for the safety of vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Advocates also calls on DOT to advance minimum performance standards for impaired driving prevention technology, which is also congressionally mandated, the group added.

”Action on numerous other safety advances including requirements for adaptive beam headlights, improved hood and bumper standards, changes to the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and commercial motor vehicle safety upgrades is essential and will make our roadways less deadly for everyone,” it stated.

The safety organization also called on states to take action to improve traffic safety and reduce deaths. It pointed to the 19th annual Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws it released in January as a pathway to increase safety on highways.

“Enacting proven safety laws, setting speed limits that account for the entirety of the roadway environment as opposed to the common practice of focusing on average vehicle speeds, utilizing automated enforcement programs to deter speeding and red-light running, and undertaking safety-focused roadway infrastructure upgrades can and must occur expeditiously,” Advocates said.

It said the vast majority of Americans want safer roads, pointing to a study on distracted driving that was released in March.

Chase said state and federal elected officials must pay attention to both these sad statistics and the recommendations to reduce them.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation released a National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) which puts forth a Safe System Approach,” she said. “However, a plan is just a plan absent action. We need leaders in Washington, D.C., to put safety technology requirements in place that will produce the greatest safety benefit for all road users.

“Unfortunately, efforts to advance legislation at the state level to improve roadway safety have been stagnant. Advocates released our 2022 Roadmap Report earlier this year showing that nearly 400 proven safety laws have yet to be enacted by state legislatures,” Chase said. “That’s why we encourage concerned citizens to contact their local and state elected officials and vocalize their support for improvements like primary enforcement seat belt laws, lower speed limits, impaired driving prevention laws, tougher distracted driving laws and support for automated enforcement programs to reduce speeding and red light running.”

The safety organization extended “our deepest condolences to the families, friends and communities” of the people who died on U.S. roads in 2021. It also sounded a call for government to move to reduce the fatalities.

“We continue to urge our nation’s leaders to take immediate action on readily available solutions to stop this anguish and agony,” Advocates noted in the release.

"Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety urges the federal government and states to pass laws and create programs to “prevent motor vehicle crashes, save lives, reduce injuries and contain costs,” the group said.

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