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Risky driving and fatal crashes surged in 2020, even with fewer drivers on the road, a new report finds

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Americans to stay home and stay put. But even though fewer people were driving during the first six months of the pandemic, riskier driving surged, leading to a troubling uptick in fatal crashes, preliminary data shows.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a report on Americans’ driving habits from March to September 2020 and found some disturbing trends. Traffic deaths rose, fewer drivers and passengers wore their seat belts and more drivers who were injured in car accidents had drugs or alcohol in their system.

The NHTSA report doesn’t include context on why these dangerous driving trends have occurred during the pandemic, partly since the data it cites is preliminary. But it has already launched a social media campaign to appeal to drivers in states where highway deaths have surged the most, including Louisiana, Michigan, New York and Texas.

“NHTSA is deeply concerned about the trends in highway safety evident in the preliminary 2020 data,” the organization told CNN in a statement.

Fewer people were driving, but more people died in car accidents

More people stayed home from March to September 2020 than in the same time period in 2019. The number of people who stayed home in the US peaked in April at 28.1% compared to 19.7% in April 2019, the report found.

Despite fewer drivers on US roads, a larger share of drivers engaged in risky behaviors such as speeding or driving under the influence.

Highway deaths surged as a result. During the first nine months of 2020, over 28,190 people died in car accidents — an increase of 4.6% from the same period in 2019, when 26,941 people died, according to separate NHTSA report.

Seat belt use fell

Seat belt use also declined during the first several months of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, around 78.1% of drivers wore their seat belts. Between March and July 2020, that number fell to 71.6%.

Passenger seat belt use declined even more steeply, from 75.4% before the pandemic to 59.2% between March and July 2020, though in the cases of both drivers and passengers, seat belt use increased slightly between late July and September 2020.

Infrequent seat belt use likely led to more car occupants being ejected from their vehicles. Ejections from March to September hovered around 1 ejection per 100 crashes that emergency services responded to. Ejections peaked in April at 1.5 ejections per 100 crashes that required emergency services — more than double the rate in April 2019, the NHTSA said.

Speeding surged

Average speeds increased on urban and rural roads throughout 2020, too. On average, speeds increased by 22% in selected metropolitan areas during the pandemic, according to the report. A large gap in speeds between drivers on the same road — what’s known as speed dispersion — often correlates with a higher likelihood of crashes, the NHTSA reported.

More injured drivers had drugs or alcohol in their system

A study of fatal or severe injuries among road users found that two-thirds of drivers had at least one drug in their system at the time of their accident, including alcohol, marijuana or opioids, according to the report.

That may have something to do with the uptick in alcohol and drug sales during the pandemic, the report said. From July to September, alcohol sales were around 20% higher than they were the previous year, according to the report. In Colorado and Oregon, legal marijuana sales increased 38% and 45% respectively compared to the previous year.

NHTSA pleads with drivers to stay safe

In an open letter, the administration is pleading with drivers to stop risking their lives behind the wheel to prevent further strain on police and emergency responders.

“The law enforcement and EMS community across the country have made your road safety a priority — but they are already stretched thin and at risk,” the NHTSA said. “Please do not further burden them with your poor driving choices.”

As the pandemic continues into 2021, the administration has asked drivers to continue wearing their seat belts, obeying the speed limit and driving sober to “reverse 2020’s terrible trend.”

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