Americans Drove Less, but Had More Fatal Crashes in 2020, NHTSA Says

By: Sarah Gleim  | 
deadly car crash
Three teens were killed and three other people were injured in this crash in California Jan. 20, 2020. It was just one of an increasing number of fatal car crashes in the U.S. in 2020. Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/Digital First Media/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

While it's true most Americans stayed home and drove significantly less in 2020 (like billions of miles less) because of the coronavirus pandemic, more people died in car crashes than in 2019 — a 7.2 percent increase in fact. But the numbers get even worse, according to a report released June 3 by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The NHTSA's report shows 2020 motor vehicle fatalities weren't just higher than they were in 2019. Early numbers indicate 38,680 people died on the road in 2020, which is the largest projected number since 2007.


So if Americans drove so much less, why were there so many more fatalities on the roads? Three reasons: impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.

Driving While Impaired

Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, drinking — and high-risk drinking — was on the rise by Americans. Then as lockdown orders went into place, national alcohol sales skyrocketed. The week of April 18, 2020, alone, NielsenIQ reported a 21 percent increase in brick-and-mortar alcohol sales compared to the previous year; online sales soared 234 percent.

As we already mentioned, driving patterns and behaviors during 2020 changed significantly. Traffic data shows that those who remained on the road were driving riskier. Several NHTSA's studies show that nearly two-thirds of seriously or fatally injured drivers at five participating trauma centers tested positive for alcohol, marijuana or opioids. Here's a breakdown of the numbers:


  • 64.7 percent of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug
  • 25.3 percent of drivers tested positive for two or more categories of drugs
  • 32.7 percent of drivers tested positive for THC
  • 28.3 percent of drivers tested positive for alcohol
  • 13.9 percent tested positive for opioids
Estimated Fatalities in 2020
This chart from the NHTSA shows the percentage change in estimated fatalities in 2020 from reported 2019 fatality counts by NHTSA region.
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration


Speed as a Factor

It wasn't just impaired driving that led to more accidents and deaths on the roads; speed factored in, too. Those fewer drivers on the road in 2020 were driving faster. That's a recipe for disaster.

Studies have proven that even a 10 percent change in the average speed is more likely to impact traffic fatalities than a 10 percent change in traffic volume.


And there's been an epidemic across the country of drivers taking advantage of the open roads. For example, in Atlanta, the Georgia State Police ticketed 140 drivers for speeding at 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour) or higher in a two-week period in April 2020. The Los Angeles Times reported citations for speeds over 100 miles per hour increased by 87 percent during the four weeks after the stay-at-home order issued March 19, 2020.

In Virginia, despite volume being down between March 13 and May 21, 2020, speed was the cause of about 50 percent of crash-related fatalities, up from 42 percent in 2019, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. (Speed was the cause in 42.2 percent of traffic fatalities in 2019.)


Seat Belt Use

Seat belts are one of the most effective ways to save lives and reduce injury in car crashes. But you have to wear them. In 2019, the national seat belt use rate was 90.7 percent. That's good. But state data points to seat belt use dropping. Both Virginia and Minnesota, for example, reported increases in traffic fatalities with passengers or drivers not wearing seat belts in 2020 compared to 2019. And ejections, which are typically caused by not wearing a seat belt, hit a high in April 2020 — double the rate in April 2019.


Who Was Most Impacted?

The NHTSA reported that traffic fatalities rose most in these categories:

  • passenger vehicle occupants: 23,395, up 5 percent
  • pedestrians: 6,205, flat from 2019
  • motorcyclists: 5,015, up 9 percent
  • pedalcyclists (people on bikes): 846, up 5 percent
  • non-Hispanic Black people: up 23 percent


There Is Some Good News

Not all of the data from 2020 was bad. Some categories actually improved in crash fatalities, including crashes involving large trucks (commercial or noncommercial use), which were down 2 percent. And deaths among drivers 65 years and older dropped by about 9 percent.

"Safety is the top priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Loss of life is unacceptable on our nation's roadways and everyone has a role to play in ensuring that they are safe. We intend to use all available tools to reverse these trends and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries," Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA's acting administrator said in a press statement. "The president's American Jobs Plan would provide an additional $19 billion in vital funding to improve road safety for all users, including people walking and biking. It will increase funding for existing safety programs and allow for the creation of new ones, with a goal of saving lives."