Road death rate higher despite fewer miles driven due to Covid, safety officials say

Through the first six months of 2020, when much of the country was under shelter-in-place restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of traffic fatalities jumped 20% from 2019, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Safety Council. 

The estimated increase in the death rate reverses a three-year trend of reduced traffic fatalities, and demonstrates the largest spike in road death rates in more than 20 years. Total miles driven on U.S. roads dropped 17% from January to June, the NSC reported, but traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven during that same time frame jumped 34.4%. Less crowded roads actually made them less safe, ostensibly because drivers could go faster than normal. 

“Because of COVID-19 and states’ shelter-in-place orders earlier this year, the country should have reaped a safety benefit from less traffic,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “Instead, our soaring rate of deaths speaks to our need to improve safety on our roads. Clearly, we must work harder as a society to reverse this trend, especially since the pandemic is not nearly over.”

To be clear, the total number of estimated deaths increased only 1% from the first half of 2019, and decreased 2% compared to the first half of 2018. But factor the increase in deaths in the first half of this year with the reduction in miles driven, and the death rate per miles driven becomes that much more pronounced. The estimated annual death rate due to traffic fatalities for 2020 is 11.8 deaths per 100,000 population.

To put that into context, the death rate due to Covid-19 is five times higher at 59.9 deaths per 100,000 people, according to John Hopkins University

The economic cost of traffic deaths, injuries, and property damage in the first six months of 2020 was $206.4 billion, according to the NSC. The NSC uses semiannual and annual estimates based on the mortality rates compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, whose reporting lags by about one year. The NSC estimates have a 0.13% historical variance with the NCHS.

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