UPDATE: April 21, 2023: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that almost 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways in 2022 — about the same number as 2021. Americans drove approximately 1% more miles in 2022 than 2021, leading the estimated fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled to dip slightly, from 1.37 in 2021 to an estimated 1.35 in 2022, NHTSA said.
Transportation safety advocates said the continuing trend of high traffic deaths and injuries is an urgent problem that requires swift action. “This can and must be stopped now,” Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase said in an emailed statement. Chase called for the U.S. Department of Transportation to advance the vehicle safety rulemaking mandated in the bipartisan infrastructure law. The rulemaking would include minimum performance standards for advanced driver assistance systems, blind spot detection, lane keeping assistance, and other crash avoidance technologies. “With each passing day ... lives are in the balance,” she said.
Nearly 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways in 2021, with traffic fatalities increasing by 10% from 2020 to 2021, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report published earlier this month.
It’s the second year-to-year increase since 2019 and the largest year-to-year percentage increase since the agency started collecting data in 1975, the report says. The estimated number of people injured on U.S. roadways also rose from 2.3 million in 2020 to 2.5 million in 2021 — a 9.4% year-to-year increase, NHTSA found.
Drunk driving, not wearing a seat belt and speeding contributed to the rise in traffic deaths and injuries, climbing 14%, 8.1% and 7.9% year-over-year, respectively, according to NHTSA.
Federal, state and local lawmakers are increasingly concerned about roadway deaths and injuries, especially fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists, which increased by 13% and 1.9% from 2020 to 2021, according to the report.
Last week, the federal government made $1 billion in funding available to help local, regional and tribal governments and metropolitan planning organizations improve road safety for drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users.
The U.S. Department of Transportation also launched a $350 million pilot program to address the more than 1 million collisions that occur between wildlife and vehicles annually. Both programs support the National Roadway Safety Strategy unveiled by the Transportation Department in January 2022, which aims to eliminate roadway deaths and serious injuries.
Some of 2021’s traffic death increases may be due to people driving more, as vehicle miles traveled increased 8.1% from 2020 to 2021, according to NHTSA. But the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled climbed 2.2% from 1.34 in 2020 to 1.37 in 2021, NHTSA found, suggesting that U.S. roadways are becoming more dangerous.
Non-fatal crashes reported by police agencies increased by 16% from 2020 to 2021. Roadway injuries among pedestrians and cyclists rose by 11% and 7%, respectively, from 2020 to 2021.
According to the Urban Institute, reducing speed limits, enforcing speed limits on highways with automatic speed cameras, more pedestrian-friendly urban infrastructure and encouraging the use of smaller vehicles could help the U.S. curb traffic fatalities.
However, some states want to increase speed limits, especially on rural highways, despite the rise in traffic fatalities. According to Stateline, a Pew Charitable Trusts news service, some supporters argue that higher speed limits could even improve traffic safety by reducing unsafe driving behavior.
“Slower driving is absolutely safer,” Stephen Boyles, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Stateline. “However, there are questions about whether lowering a speed limit actually slows down drivers. Differences in speeds among drivers are also dangerous: it leads to tailgating, lane changing, passing, and other dangerous maneuvers.”
But most road safety advocates support lower speed limits. According to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, reducing speeds by 1 mph can decrease deadly crashes by 17%. Traffic fatalities dropped by 16.4% between 1973 and 1974 after President Richard Nixon set a maximum of 55 mph on interstates.