Traffic fatalities across the U.S. increased 12% in the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, the largest annual rise since 1975 according to an October 2021 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Approximately 38,680 people died in vehicle crashes across the U.S. in 2020, the highest since 2007.
At the same time, overall driving volume was down by at least 20%.
According to the NHTSA report, the proportion of dangerous drivers increased among people who continued to drive during the pandemic, increasing the threat of dangerous behavior.
A separate study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that car crashes in 2020 involving impairment, speeding, running red lights and stop signs, and non-seatbelt use rose to their highest levels in more than a decade.
Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation, said on its website, “Safety-minded individuals drove less, while many who increased their driving tended to engage in riskier behaviors behind the wheel.”
The study identified a cohort of 4% of drivers who drove more during the pandemic than before, disproportionately male, with a median age of 39 (compared with 50 for the general driving population). But after accounting for gender, age and miles driven, the more frequent drivers were also found to be those more prone to aggressive or reckless driving.
“We saw this small group of people who were driving more than they did before the pandemic were the same people who were the highest-risk drivers on the road,” said AAA senior researcher Brian Tefft.
But that small group alone may not be to blame, according to a separate AAA report exploring road rage in the time of COVID-19.
Half of all drivers respond to the real or imagined careless acts of other drivers by becoming aggressive themselves. Nearly 80% surveyed by the AAA expressed significant anger behind the wheel at least once in the past year. About 50% tailgated, honked at or blocked another driver. Still others pursued drivers to engage in physical and sometimes fatal confrontations.
And while 94% of all accidents are due to human error, over half of fatal accidents can be attributed to road rage, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
“You will see other drivers doing things that are illegal, inconsiderate and even incomprehensible. Don’t respond personally,” AAA said. “Most drivers are not thinking about their impact on you; they are just rushed, distracted or upset. Remaining calm and courteous behind the wheel lowers your risk of an unpleasant encounter — with another driver and with law enforcement.”
The AAA report also speculated that lack of traffic enforcement during the pandemic might have played a part in the rise of dangerous driving conditions.
Many police agencies around the country encouraged officers to make fewer traffic stops for minor offenses, according to the report, to reduce contact with drivers. Tefft said decreased engagement by law enforcement may have emboldened people predisposed to dangerous behavior.
“I think it all probably plays a role,” he said.
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