The reason for the spike in Black deaths is not noted in the federal report. But experts say that, just as the virus itself spread more readily through communities of color, the increase was probably a result of existing inequities being compounded.
Researchers have previously concluded that Black communities tend to be crisscrossed by more dangerous roads. During the pandemic, people of color were more likely to be employed in “essential” jobs without the option to stay home. And people driving faster amid lower traffic levels meant crashes were more likely to be deadly.
“Safety inequity in transportation is really an old issue,” said Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health. “It’s those historic factors that have led to the potential for increased inequities during covid.”
NHTSA estimated that 38,680 people were killed in crashes nationwide last year, and said that 7,494 of them were Black.
A new study released Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) highlights the disparities. It analyzed data from 2015 to 2019 and found that in different types of traffic crashes, Black people were killed at higher rates than White people. Black pedestrians were killed at a rate twice as high.
Charles Brown, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Planning and Public Policy, said the figures leave transportation officials facing a simple question.
“We’ve all been socialized, in a way, to believe that Black death is due to Black behavior when instead we know infrastructure influences behavior,” said Brown, who is the founder of planning firm Equitable Cities. “If that is true, we need investments in quality infrastructure in Black communities. How many more Black people do we have to lose before that is the number one priority?”
The GHSA represents state agencies that administer federal money to tackle problems such as drunken and distracted driving. Russ Martin, the organization’s senior director of policy and government relations, said the group compiled the numbers as it grapples with racial injustices and police enforcement of traffic rules.
Martin said protests after the murder of George Floyd last year led to an “accelerated national discussion about equity in transportation that includes traffic safety and instances of police misconduct and questions about enforcement.”
Under the Biden administration, the Transportation Department has made promoting racial equity a top priority. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the administration is proposing a $20 billion traffic safety proposal to reduce crashes and road deaths as part of its infrastructure plan.
“Last year’s traffic fatality rates and the racial disparities reflected in them are unacceptable,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “This reflects broader patterns of inequity in our country — and it underscores the urgent work we must undertake as a nation to make our roads safer for every American.”
NHTSA said in a statement that it would continue to analyze data from states to better understand the underlying causes of the racial disparities, describing as “disturbing” the increase in the rate at which Black people were killed on the roads last year.
The GHSA study found wide differences among racial and ethnic groups. Hispanics, as well as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, were killed at rates slightly lower than Whites, while Asians had significantly lower death rates. But American Indians and Alaska Natives were killed at much higher rates — more than twice the rate of Black residents.
Guillermo Narvaez, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota who has studied traffic safety in tribal areas, said American Indian communities are often remote and suffer from unsafe road designs. He said Indians also must contend with driving long distances to run everyday errands and often lack access to high-quality emergency medical care that can mean the difference between dying and severe injury.
Experts point to differing levels of investment in road safety as the likely source of disparities among racial groups.
A study published this year in the Journal of Transport and Land Use examined stretches of road where drivers had killed six or more pedestrians in eight years to see what they had in common. All of them served commercial areas, more than three-quarters had speed limits of at least 30 mph and three-quarters bordered lower-income neighborhoods, according to the study.
Madeline Brozen, a transportation researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied road deaths in the nation’s second-largest city, said roads that often cut through minority communities — with many lanes, long distances between stop lights and few trees — send signals to drivers that they can go fast. Those designs meant that some communities were primed to fare worse as traffic deaths climbed during the pandemic, she said.
“This was already a problem before the pandemic and when you increase traffic speeds, that’s likely to make it worse,” Brozen said.
Transportation funding bills advancing in Congress would put a new focus on ideas such as “complete streets,” which aim to make roads safe for drivers and people outside cars by creating bike lanes and places to cross. Urban transportation officials say they often struggle to build safer roads because state governments tend to cater to suburban commuters.
Martin said safety promotion campaigns tailored to resonate in communities of color should play a role in trying to save lives.
“Making changes to infrastructure can be a long-term effort,” he said. “In the meantime, you figure out the balance.”
The GHSA study says enforcement of traffic laws is an effective way to improve safety, but acknowledges that police stops of Black people are under renewed scrutiny, saying they should be conducted only in a way that has the support of local communities.
Traffic stops sometimes involve police confronting Black drivers to pursue criminal investigations not related to road safety. The GHSA analysis also found that Black people were killed in crashes involving a police pursuit at a rate four times higher than White people.
Alejo Alvarado, a planner who studied traffic stops in Oakland as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, found that police disproportionately stopped Black people, and that the stops were more likely to result in arrests.
“Enforcement’s definitely always one of the first things there, just because it’s a more immediate signifier of safety for some people,” Alvarado said.
For Brown, the Rutgers professor, those kinds of findings show why discussion should focus on the physical environment in communities of color.
“What they’ve had historically is a disproportionate share of enforcement,” he said. “What they need now is a disproportionate share of investment in infrastructure.”