More than 9,500 people were killed in traffic crashes in the first three months of this year, federal transportation officials said Wednesday — a figure that represents the deadliest start to a year on U.S. roads in two decades.
The figures are preliminary estimates, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not release breakdowns of the causes of crashes. Officials say a surge in traffic fatalities that started in 2020 as the pandemic began has continued unabated.
“The overall numbers are still moving in the wrong direction,” said Steven Cliff, the head of NHTSA. “Now is the time for all states to double down on traffic safety.”
Experts have struggled to come up with an explanation for the spike in deaths but have pointed to less congestion amid changed driving patterns during the pandemic, which they say have allowed more dangerous speeds. Officials say there’s also evidence of an uptick in reckless behavior, such as driving impaired or without wearing a seat belt.
“When everyday life came to a halt in March 2020, risky behaviors skyrocketed and traffic fatalities spiked,” Cliff said. “We had hoped these trends were limited to 2020, but sadly, they aren’t.”
NHTSA reported 7,893 traffic deaths in the first three months of 2020, a period mostly before the onset of the pandemic. In 2021, the figure jumped to 8,935 deaths, then rose to 9,560 this year.
The number of deaths this year was the highest in the first three months of a year since 2002. The first quarter is consistently the least deadly on U.S. roads.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this year said the nation would work to eliminate crash deaths, pledging to adopt a “safe system” approach that would look as much at the design of roads and cars as the behavior of individual drivers. The effort is backed by billions in new safety funding from last year’s infrastructure law, including a $5 billion fund that will provide grants aimed at protecting bicyclists and pedestrians.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state traffic safety agencies, said the numbers released Wednesday underscore the need to implement the new strategy.
“Another new report of an increase in lives lost may feel a bit like Groundhog Day, but we must not become desensitized to the tragedy of roadway deaths,” said Jonathan Adkins, the group’s executive director.
The crash data was released at an event where federal transportation officials unveiled ads designed to encourage people not to drive drunk over the Labor Day holiday. The campaign has a $13 million budget and will run on television, radio, the internet and on billboards. It will be paired with an enforcement campaign by local police from Friday through Labor Day.
The infrastructure law included mandates for technology that could address some of the biggest causes of fatalities, such as calling for NHTSA to require breath monitoring devices for alcohol in new cars. Such a system is in testing, but a mandate is likely years away.
While NHTSA has responsibility for the safety of vehicles, much of its budget is dedicated to advertising campaigns and help for law enforcement. Some safety advocates say the federal government has struggled to move beyond its long-standing focus on driver behavior.
Ken McLeod, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists, pointed to a recent campaign using the slogan “speeding slows you down” as a missed opportunity.
“We focus a lot on the bad people who speed or drive drunk. Of course those things are awful, but we also need to make that positive case for investing in safer streets, safer vehicles, slower roads,” he said.
The early stages of the pandemic saw roads become emptier as people stayed home, but drivers quickly returned to their vehicles, even as driving was no longer as dominated by morning and evening commutes. NHTSA reported that Americans drove more than 750 billion miles between January and March, an increase of more than 5 percent compared with 2021.
The agency calculated the death rate on U.S. roads during the first three months of this year at 1.27 per 100 million miles driven, which was also higher than last year.
Cliff announced this month he is leaving for an environmental job in California, coming three months after receiving Senate confirmation. His duties will be fulfilled by the agency’s top lawyer, but safety groups have urged President Biden to quickly nominate a replacement who can tackle problems on U.S. roads.
Adkins said the success of the administration’s strategy “demands that all levels of government be bold and aggressive in making our roadways safer and a strong NHTSA can and should lead that charge.”
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