Soaring US road deaths reflect the same lawlessness as murder surge does


The United States just passed 900,000 COVID deaths — and we can add another 8,935 souls to that grim total.

That’s the number of “extra” people who perished in car crashes in 2020 and 2021, with traffic deaths soaring during the pandemic. It’s not because people have more room to drive fast on emptier roads. It’s yet another example of the same anti-social behavior that’s pushed up the murder rate. 

In early 2020, reporters and researchers told us that fewer crashes would be one of the pandemic’s “silver linings,” like more time to work on our hobbies.

And it was true, for a while: During spring 2020, traffic deaths fell from 9,172 the previous spring to 9,120 — a grand total decline of 0.6%.

People were driving less — mileage on the American road fell by nearly a quarter — so fewer people died.

But there was a warning sign: The death rate increased, even as total deaths fell. That same spring, the death rate, at 1.46 per hundred million miles traveled, was 35% higher than 2019’s 1.08 rate.

A car sits lodged onto the wall of the property at 4424 East 45th Street in Farragut, Brooklyn on Monday August 9, 2021 in New York City, USA.
Between 2019 and 2020, drunk-driving deaths were up 9% even though the pandemic was keeping plenty of people home.
Stefan Jeremiah for NY Post

So yes, fewer people had more space on the open road to speed — and crash. 

Yet even as roads have grown more crowded, this trend has continued: 2020’s total 38,680 traffic deaths were 7.2% above 2019’s.

For the first nine months of 2021, road mileage driven wasn’t even 2% below 2019 levels. The 2020 reason for higher traffic deaths disappeared. People could no longer drive at 100 miles per hour because there was no one else around.

In New York City, traffic stops made by police have dropped by nearly half since 2019.
James Keivom for NY Post

Yet traffic deaths were nearly 18% higher than two years before. The 12% increase between the first nine months of 2020 and 2021 was the highest hike in that period in recorded history, say federal regulators. 

When 2021’s full numbers are in, they’ll likely exceed 42,400 traffic deaths — the worst total in 16 years. Traffic deaths are supposed to fall every year, as road design and cars grow safer (although bigger cars are bad for pedestrians).

New York City, after doing far better than the rest of the country for decades, performed worse over the past two years. Local traffic deaths in 2021 clocked in at 268, 21.8% higher than in 2019. 

An Acura crashed into a black Audi, knocking the wheel off of the Audi.
At least 38,680 people died in traffic accidents in the United States in 2020.
Kevin C. Downs for NY Post

Why have these higher death tolls persisted even as congestion has gotten back to normal? 

They’re a symptom of the same recklessness that has taken hold in much of American life since COVID. Federal officials haven’t yet put together detailed data for 2021, but we know the stats for 2020. 

Who was dying in higher numbers that first plague year? “Occupant ejection” deaths were up 20%. That bureaucratese means more people weren’t wearing their seat belts — though wearing one is the easiest and cheapest thing in the world to do.

Drunk-driving deaths were up 9%. Not that there is ever an excuse for drunk driving, but people should have been able to get drunk at home and stay home. They didn’t, apparently.

People in the age and socioeconomic groups most prone to reckless behavior suffered the most. Deaths in the 16-to-24 age group were up 15%; among over-65s, they fell.

Deaths among black people were up a whopping 23%. There are many probable reasons for this: More black people, fewer of whom have “work at home” jobs, had to stay on the road.

But young black men have also suffered the most in the record-high increases in the murder rate — up by nearly half — over the past two years. The same public-safety failings that are causing more young black men to fall victim to murder are causing them to fall victim to traffic crashes.

Finally, state troopers and other police forces have cut back significantly on traffic stops. There are no national data, but from California to Connecticut, police stops are down by double digits. In New York City, they’ve dropped by nearly half since 2019.

If you’re inclined to get in a car drunk with a gun but no seat belt and speed, there’s no deterrent not to.

D'Andre Walker and his crashed car.
The traffic deaths for 2021 are expected to exceed 42,400, which would be the most fatalities in 16 years.

This isn’t a universal phenomenon: Road deaths are down in France and Britain from 2019.

As with many post-COVID pathologies — record murders and drug overdoses, too — the answer can’t just be to say “The pandemic made everyone crazy” and hope for the best. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. 


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