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Deaths on U.S. roads soared to 16-year high in 2021

A Las Vegas police crime scene investigator stands next to a Chevrolet Corvette involved in an accident on Nov. 2, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Road deaths soared more than 10 percent last year compared with a year earlier, reaching 42,915, according to estimates released Tuesday by federal transportation officials. It was the highest number of fatalities nationwide since 2005.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also reported that it was the largest annual percentage increase in the history of its Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which began in 1975.

The agency said fatal multivehicle pileups and crashes on urban roads were up 16 percent. Fatalities among senior citizens jumped 14 percent. Deaths involving at least one large truck soared 13 percent, as did pedestrian fatalities. Deaths of bicyclists were up 5 percent, as were fatal crashes involving speeding and alcohol. Driving overall was up 11 percent.

“We will redouble our safety efforts, and we need everyone — state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers — to join us,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement. “All of our lives depend on it.”

Even when factoring in the increase in miles driven last year, the nation’s on-road fatality rate — which soared in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic — remains elevated and out of sync with recent years, according to the figures. The new numbers deepened concerns among federal, state and outside safety advocates.

“An increase in dangerous driving … during the pandemic, combined with roads designed for speed instead of safety, has wiped out a decade and a half of progress,” the Governors Highway Safety Association said in a statement. The group, which represents state highway safety offices, added that “this grim milestone confirms we are moving backwards.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, speaking from Berlin on Tuesday, said the trends in the United States are “moving in the wrong direction and the numbers are flatly unacceptable.” He added: “Europe is one of many places that provides real proof and evidence that we don’t have to accept this rate of death on our roadways as normal or inevitable.”

The European Union, which has more than 100 million more people than the United States, had fewer than half the number of road fatalities last year, according to figures released in March. The European Commission said 19,800 people were killed in 2021, up 5 percent from 2020, but still significantly below pre-pandemic-levels.

Buttigieg earlier this week pointed to billions in new spending from the infrastructure law that is meant to address what he called “a national crisis of fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways.”

Crash deaths are on the rise across the nation. The infrastructure bill opens the door to a safety overhaul.

Federal transportation officials said a new Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program, created under the infrastructure law President Biden signed in November, is designed help local governments track and address dangerous road trends. The program, which will provide $1 billion in grants this year, emphasizes safety projects to protect pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users, in addition to car and truck drivers.

The program is part of a broader federal roadway safety strategy, known as a Safe System Approach, that seeks to slow drivers and better account for the inevitability of human mistakes on the road.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, examples include separating people traveling at different speeds, providing dedicated times for different users to move through a space and alerting road users to hazards.

Buttigieg releases national plan to reduce road deaths

Three pandemic-era behavioral trends that helped to push deaths higher in 2020 worsened in 2021, according to the data.

Speeding-related fatalities increased 17 percent from 2019 to 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began. They continued their climb in 2021, increasing another 5 percent. The yearly tally of lives lost in such crashes rose from 9,592 in 2019 to 11,258 in 2020, followed by 11,780 last year.

Deaths among those who were not wearing seat belts increased by 14 percent in the pandemic’s first year, a figure that grew another 3 percent in 2021, according to the data. And alcohol-related crashes, as reported by police, were up 16 percent in 2020, followed by another 5 percent last year.

Other road safety measures that rose early in the pandemic seemed to moderate. Deaths in rollover crashes, which road safety experts say are particularly violent and often involve a single vehicle, went up sharply in 2020 compared with a year earlier, rising 13 percent. Fatalities in such crashes fell by 4 percent between 2020 and 2021, but were still above 2019 levels.

Federal officials said driving increased significantly last year, with preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration showing that the distance traveled by cars and trucks “increased by about 325 billion miles, or about 11.2%, as compared to 2020.”

Federal estimates show there were 1.33 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, down slightly from 1.34 fatalities in 2020.

“While the fatality rate continued to rise in the first quarter, it declined in the other three quarters of 2021, compared to 2020,” according to NHTSA.

Still, the overall death rate in 2021 remained much higher than before the pandemic. In 2019, there were 1.11 deaths per 100 million miles traveled on U.S. roads, according to NHTSA.

Pedestrians were among those dying in higher numbers, with 7,342 killed in 2021, up from 6,516 in 2020. Forty-seven more bicyclists were killed last year, compared with 2020, pushing the total to 985.

Loveday Morris contributed to this report.