Roadway Deaths in U.S. are Way Higher Than Normal — And in NYC, Too

Photo: Julianne Cuba
Photo: Julianne Cuba

Give them an inch … and they’ll kill us all.

Car drivers are killing people — pedestrians, cyclists, their own passengers, themselves — at a much higher rate this year compared to last, even though total travel is down dramatically because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report shows.

Publicly available data crunched by traffic engineering firm Sam Schwartz reveals that the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.15 for the first six months of this year, up from 1.02 during the same period last year — an increase of 12.7 percent.

“This increase in traffic fatality rates is tragic and unacceptable,” said Richard Retting, the National Practice Leader for Safety and Research at Sam Schwartz, the firm started by the legendary New York City traffic expert (and creator of the term “gridlock”).

Retting noted that total deaths were down 5 percent in the first six months of the year in the 22 states and the District of Columbia that publicly report fatality data — but that number should have been dramatically lower, given that total vehicle miles traveled in those 22 states and the capital city were down 16.6 percent during the same period.

Total fatalities by state, January-June in 2019 and 2020. Most states are down, but not nearly as much as the drop in VMTs. Source: Sam Schwartz
Total fatalities by state, January-June in 2019 and 2020. Most states are down, but not nearly as much as the drop in VMTs. Source: Sam Schwartz

“While it is good to see a decline in absolute numbers of traffic fatalities during the COVID era, the overall picture remains bleak due to increases in fatalities rates,” Retting added. “We should have seen very large reductions in traffic deaths due to large reductions in VMT. Sadly, that did not happen.”

Shockingly, in three states — Montana, Vermont, Wisconsin — plus the District of Columbia, total road deaths actually increased this year, albeit by small absolute values. In Vermont, for example, there were 11 deaths in the first six months of 2019 and 22 deaths this year, which is a 100-percent increase. Montana was up from 74 to 82, or 11 percent.

None of the states returned a request for comment.

In New York City, the pattern is also holding true: Only slightly fewer deaths, despite dramatic decreases in vehicle miles traveled.

Normal VMTs in New York City are roughly 140 million miles per day. But during the COVID period, that figure dropped as low as 15 million on April 13, according to Streetlight Data, which is providing the most accurate VMT data during the pandemic.

Overall, vehicle miles driven in New York City appears to be down 40 percent in January through June of 2020, compared to the same period last year. But road fatalities are only down 10 percent in the first six months of 2020, according to data from the Department of Transportation.

“We have seen an uptick in serial speeders,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the Daily News in July. “There’s just a lot more of them around the city, so we’re seeing some repeat offenders. With traffic volume so much lower, people just unfortunately find themselves speeding.”

The increase in deaths per vehicle miles traveled has been discussed widely on a piecemeal basis, with most experts attributing the increase to rampant speeding in which drivers have engaged thanks to the fewer cars on the road. Streetsblog NYC was one of the first outlets to notice the COVID-19-era nexus connecting empty roads, driver behavior and death.

The Washington Post later looked more broadly, identifying “a disproportionate number of speed-related crashes and fatalities” nationwide.

“We’re getting reports every week of dozens of drivers being cited for traveling over 100 miles an hour. That’s just insanity for our roadways,” Michael Hanson of the Office of Traffic Safety in Minnesota told the paper in May. At the time, 42 people had been killed in traffic collisions in the first 45 days of the state’s stay-at-home order, up from 29 during the same period in 2019.

 

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