2020 Road Safety Roundup And What to Expect in 2021

With 2020 coming to a close, we’re looking back at road safety issues from the past twelve months and looking ahead to 2021.

Here are the road safety headlines from the past year.

COVID-19 Alters Driving Patterns

2020 was the year of staying home for many Americans. With states issuing stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19, office workers began working from home, children across the country began remote learning, and we all sacrificed vacations, gatherings, and nights out.

This led to a serious alteration of normal driving patterns, particularly in terms of traffic volume. In April 2020, the United States saw 168.2 billion vehicle-miles driven. This sounds like a lot until you compared it to April of 2019, in which the U.S. saw 281.5 billion vehicle-miles.

While traffic volume has increased since April, we’re still seeing fewer vehicle-miles driven than we did in pre-COVID years.

Increased Fatality Percentages in 2020

With fewer vehicles on the road, you might expect that the number of car crash fatalities would be lower than we’ve seen in years. Well, we have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that the number of fatalities is down about 2% compared to 2019. The bad news is that the same data show that the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is up. In 2019, the rate was just 1.06, but for the first half of 2020, the rate was up to 1.25. 

Why are the roads more dangerous with fewer people on them?

Sadly, many Americans are making poor driving decisions in the COVID era. And the roads may actually be more dangerous now because of the lower number of drivers. According to the NHTSA’s report on traffic safety during the second quarter of 2020, “people who are less risk-averse may have engaged in their usual driving routine and habits [...] while more risk-averse people remained home and off the roads."

The report continues, “The stay-at-home orders may have led the population of drivers during the height of the health crisis to have been smaller but more willing to take risks [...] Thus, drivers with greater risk tolerance may have contributed to the worse safety outcomes on a per-VMT basis.”

This risky behavior is evident in states like Florida, where we’re seeing a higher percentage of reckless speeding tickets. And in Colorado, which reported a 32% increase in alcohol- and marijuana-related crashes from January to April of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. 

Interestingly, the states with the most DUIs for 2020 are all states with comparatively low population density:

  1. North Dakota

  2. Wyoming

  3. South Dakota

  4. Wisconsin

  5. Alaska

These high DUI figures in low population states show that people are more likely to drink and drive when fewer drivers are on the road. This could be a lack of rideshare options in rural areas but remember, ridesharing is down nationwide because passengers are not as willing to share a vehicle during the pandemic. So there appears to have been a higher percentage of drunk drivers on the road in 2020 compared to 2019.

2021 Road Safety is Uncertain

COVID vaccines are being administered as quickly as the supply chain can distribute them, so there’s hope that we’ll finally see a permanent decline in the number of coronavirus infections and deaths. But what then? Will drivers go back to the way things were in “the before times,” or have driving patterns been changed for the long-term?

Now that companies have seen the productivity of employees working from home, many companies are offering long-term remote work arrangements (either working from home full-time or commuting to the office just a day or two each week). This means it’s likely we’ll see more vehicle-miles driven in 2021 than in 2020 but not as many as in 2019.

In all likelihood, more states will approve online driver’s ed over the coming years as we see the positive results from the 2020 remote learning experiment.

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