NHTSA: 38,680 Traffic Fatalities in 2020, Up 7.2% From 2019

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Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its early estimates of motor vehicle traffic fatalities that took place in 2020. It estimated that 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes — representing an estimated increase of around 7.2% compared to the 36,096 fatalities that were reported in 2019.

The report includes preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that showed vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2020 decreased by around 430.2 billion miles, translating to around a 13.2% decrease. In 2020, there were 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT. That number is an increase from 2019 in which data showed 1.11 fatalities per 100 million VMT.

Charts courtesy of NHTSA

The NHTSA estimated that the projected fatality rate for 2020 would be the greatest since 2007 and noted that in the last two quarters of the year the fatalities are projected to be greater than the final two quarters of 2019. Compared with 2019, the fatality rate per 100 million VMT in all four quarters of 2020 is much higher.

The NHTSA stated that all 10 of its regions are estimated to have increases in fatalities along with the fatality rate per 100 million VMT in 2020 compared with that of 2019. These are just early estimates. The annual reporting file for 2020 will be available later this year.

How Covid-19 Impacted The Numbers

Considering that there was a pandemic last year that had the entire world on lockdown and many nations issued stay-at-home orders, the numbers are a bit shocking. One would think that since very few people were traveling, the fatality rates would have decreased.

The NHTSA pointed out that the impact of the pandemic led to a decrease in VMT by 13.2% compared with 2019. However, the fatality rate had a marked increase. Why?

Contributing Factors

What caused these accidents and fatalities to jump? If everyone is staying at home, with the exception of essential workers, why would these numbers rise? The NHTSA shared that there were some potential contributing factors that influenced those numbers and that it’s still gathering data to try to learn more, including from police crash reports. The final file for 2019 and report file for 2020 should be available in the late fall of 2021

I have some theories — based on what I think is common sense.

Distracted driving. A new study conducted by Zendrive found that distracted driving skyrocked in 2020 here in the U.S. According to the results, which analyzed 86,000 motor vehicle collisions, drivers were actively using their cell phones within 60 seconds of impact 27% of the time.

And around 17% of drivers were on their phones during the five seconds immediately before impact. The study also sated that driving while using a mobile device reduced brain activity necessary for driving by 37%, and that engaging with a social network while driving results in the slowest reaction time for drivers, at around 38%. This is followed very closely by testing.

Great cell phone usage may have been a trend unrelated to the pandemic, or perhaps people thought there was less risk on the road due to fewer people driving and then became more careless as a result.

Road rage. A pastor here pulled a gun and shot a truck driver, then drove away — but later turned himself in. This is one wild incident of road rage, but the point is that road rage increased overall during the pandemic. There was even a new term coined, “Cov Rage.”

In May, the Washingtonian noted that re-entry anxiety had people on edge. The article pointed out that there’s been an uptick in road rage incidents across the nation that have been linked with pandemic emotions. Google searches for road rage have also increased during the pandemic and even spiked during the spring.

In the article, the author interviewed Dr. Caroline Wohlegemuth, a psychiatrist, about the emotional state around re-entry and the easing of restrictions. She has seen clients increasingly irritated or frustrated by sitting in traffic or having to wait in line. She noted that it’s not really the traffic or the line or the mask that is the core problem. Frustration is a symptom of underlying pandemic-era anxiety. “This is hard. Humans don’t like change,” she told me. “And even though [most of us] didn’t like isolating, we don’t like changing it again. You get used to a certain way of being,” she said.

Stressed out drivers. This was a horrible time for many who may have lost loved ones to Covid-19. Add in the stress on essential workers who had no choice but to work during the pandemic. A study by Deloitte found that both Millennials and Gen Zers have had to take time off work due to stress and anxiety that was caused by the pandemic — although some in this group gave their employer a different reason since there’s a continuing stigma around mental health in the workplace.

Finances, family welfare, and job prospects were the main causes for this stress, with 41% of millennials and 46% of Gen Zers being affected. Michele Parmelee, Deloitte Global Deputy CEO and Chief People and Purpose Officer, added some thoughts about this. “Fostering open and inclusive workplaces where people feel comfortable speaking up about stress, anxiety or other mental health challenges they are experiencing is critical,” she said. “Employers have a responsibility to create a work environment that supports employees’ mental health and well-being and allows them to thrive.”

In many cases, this doesn’t happen, especially if the type of job is minimum wage. I’ve worked several of these jobs and they are demanding, and don’t really care if you fall ill, have an emergency, or whatever the case may be. If these jobs don’t care about that, then rest assured, they don’t care about the mental health of their employees either. Perhaps this is why so many people don’t want to work these slave-wage jobs anymore.


Again, those are just a few examples that could lead to why accidents and fatalities are on the rise. It makes sense that people are stressed and are having issues with anxiety. I get it too — I don’t like leaving home, and while I was flying to California last week, I was a bit worried. When the pilot came on and said the system shut down while we were getting ready to take off from Baton Rouge, I admit, I felt the anxiety come on strong. Fortunately, the guy next to me was cool and calm and happy to chat, and once we were off, the turbulence was rather soothing.

Odd to say, but our roads here in Louisiana are really messed up. The nonstop bumpy ride just kind of felt familiar.

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Johnna Crider

Johnna owns less than one share of $TSLA currently and supports Tesla's mission. She also gardens, collects interesting minerals and can be found on TikTok

Johnna Crider has 1996 posts and counting. See all posts by Johnna Crider