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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Another epidemic

A recent Automotive News column recapped a troubling trend.  Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal an epidemic within the recent year’s health pandemic — a rise in traffic deaths.  Despite a 13 percent drop in total 2020 miles driven, 38,680 people died in traffic accidents, the highest death toll since 2007—back up to over a 100-per-day average.

So while there were plenty of ways 2020 stood out as an exceptionally challenging year, it was an especially deadly one on America’s roadways.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the dreaded virus, the times of the pandemic will be remembered for testing, masks, social distancing and working from home. But sadly, the record will show that vehicle-related deaths proliferated too.  Again, according to NHTSA, the total vehicle miles driven dropped 13 percent in 2020.  However, the number of people who died in traffic accidents jumped 7.2 percent to 38,680.  It's the highest death toll since 2007, and the fatality rate, which is tallied from deaths per mile driven, was the worst since 2006.

It’s worthy of note that the ever-renewing, collective U.S. automotive fleet undeniably better engineered and technologically safer than it was in those days.  The automotive industry has invested many billions of dollars (likely hundreds of billions) over the past 50 years making automobiles safer.  Automakers are now accelerating that quest with the increasing use of advanced driver-assistance systems.  Those investments — from seat belts to airbags to anti-lock brakes to driver alerts and crash avoidance systems — had showed results over the recent years, driving down both the number and severity of traffic crashes.

NHTSA reports that the main behaviors behind the fatality increase included impaired driving and excessive speed.  Another discouraging stat from the NHTSA ‘s scrutiny showed that deaths involving motorists not wearing seat belts jumped 15 percent in 2020 over 2019.

Many driving-related entities (automakers, insurers, traffic enforcement and safety organizations) ponder the emergence of these trends.  Was 2020 behavior just “weird” because of the pandemic?  Was there increased alcohol and medication use?  Was there more speed because there was less traffic?  Time will tell if the year was just a one-time anomaly or a continuing trend.

If we are fortunate, the rate of automotive deaths will reverts to its historical pattern of the last few decades — downward.   But two powerful forces could turn 2020 into the start of a dangerous trend.

Vehicles with higher and higher horsepower are offered year after year — a jump that will escalate even faster as electric vehicles take over a bigger percentage of available consumer models.  At the same time, distraction from cell phones seems to be omnipresent and large vehicle infotainment screens in the center stack vie for drivers’ attention to the road.

On top of the general rise in traffic deaths for 2020, pedestrian deaths rose too, when approximately 6,721 pedestrians died in traffic-related mishaps.  By those figures, it will be the highest number of pedestrians killed by automobiles in 31 years.  The number represents nearly a 5 percent increase over 2019.  While the uptick is being studied, preliminary blame for last year’s higher numbers leans to less police presence, more speeding and bigger vehicles.

Safe driving benefits both the driver and everyone else.  One traffic fatality is one too many, but over 100 per day is outlandish.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at