The latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirms what local agencies have already suggested. Last year represented another significant increase in the number of deaths on American roads, up 10.5% from the high death rate seen in 2020. The agency estimated that 42,915 people were killed in 2021, while 2020 saw 38,824 deaths – a 7.1% increase from the declines seen in 2019. While the current situation is not as bad as the rates seen in the 1970s, this still represents the highest per capita deaths in sixteen years and everyone is trying to figure out why.
Road fatalities have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic, confusing anyone who counts crashes, as supporting data also shows there was significantly less driving during the period. Historically, years when people are reluctant to hit the road due to a struggling economy tend to account for far fewer traffic-related fatalities. We can see this happening in 1942 when the United States prepared to enter World War II by rationing everything from fuel to rubber. Another glaring example takes place in 1932, as the nation reached the darkest point of the Great Depression. In fact, there are very few examples of per capita improvements in road fatalities since the pre-war period, and those that do exist coincide directly with the economic downturn.
The examples become a little less stark after 1942. But those with enough time will no doubt notice that traffic accidents tend to decrease whenever the United States goes through a period of financial difficulty. Correlation is not causation. But you can compare every recession that’s on the books against government driving data dating back to 1900 to draw your own conclusions. Although mine is still that there’s simply less opportunity for chaos when the average person suddenly spends less time behind the wheel.
This puts the assumption at odds with our current reality, however. If road accidents are really going down every time Americans have to tighten their seat belts and keep their vehicles parked at home, why has the last two years shown such a large increase in the number of fatalities?
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) has suggested that a combination of speed increases, distracted driving, driving under the influence and “roads designed for speed rather than safety” has sent states United on the wrong track – allegedly undoing decades of progress. Although the group might not be the ones offering the solutions everyone loves, as it has powered algorithmic software that uses enhanced traffic and on-board cameras to continuously track driver behavior and location. individual. Based on initiatives already planned in the European Union, the system also monitors vehicle status and would “ideally” offer the ability to send a live feed from inside a car to local law enforcement. whenever the algorithm is triggered by a series of unwanted actions. The police could then remotely disable the automobile and deal with the occupants.
Love or hate the GHSA’s long-term view, there’s certainly a case to be made when it comes to distracted driving. Although everyone thought that cell phones would lead to annual spikes in traffic accidents, the fatality rate remained relatively stable as they were introduced into the mainstream. But automakers may have opened Pandora’s box by introducing large touchscreens at the expense of easier-to-use buttons, knobs and switches. Drivers now have to interact with visual displays and are difficult to operate using only muscle memory.
Drug and alcohol use has also been unquestionably on the rise since 2010, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported horrific borderline increases in the frequency of fatal overdoses since the start of the pandemic. Early data from the CDC suggested nearly 108,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021 alone. With that total in mind, it’s easy to assume that more people have been driving while intoxicated than in the past.
Speed is the slightly harder factor to pinpoint. While there were numerous reports of speeding spiraling out of control in early 2020, attributed to empty roads created by the pandemic, concrete data was limited to local law enforcement. This created a patchwork of limited information with the assumption that it had become a national problem. But later reports suggested it was a temporary problem. That’s not to say that speed wouldn’t play a role in the death toll, just that the resulting data has been less consistent and harder to prove has become a problem for the whole country. Speeding undoubtedly increased in the spring and summer of 2020, we just don’t know if it continued into 2021.
Whatever the cause, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said America faces a crisis on its roads that must be resolved. The Department of Transportation is focusing on an alleged decline in seat belt use, the aforementioned speeding allegations, and the speculation that more people took out-of-state road trips as the pandemic was waning. While possible, that last issue doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you take into account that 2020 also saw a significant increase in road fatalities. Either way, the Biden administration has pledged $5 billion to cities interested in using the funds to slow cars under the Safe Streets & Roads for All program.
Although this is technically a car safety initiative, the funds have mainly been allocated to things like adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks and trying to convince commuters with cars to pass. to public transport. Having more walkable towns isn’t a bad idea (unless it makes driving a nightmare) and can even improve pedestrian safety. But something tells me there’s more at stake here than people who lack sufficient alternatives to the automobile in urban environments. The past two years have shown marked increases in vehicle-related deaths and the fact that they coincide with a period when people were undoubtedly driving less could suggest that there is a very serious problem.
Have driver assistance programs blunted people’s skills so much that they are now poorer drivers? Did the drug epidemic play a role? Has the influx of oversized touchscreens kept people from keeping their eyes on the road? Is this the result of the aging of the US population (and the average driver)? Or has the average motorist really turned into a lead-footed maniac who cares little for the well-being of others through the daily stresses of being alive?
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