Deadly car crashes hit a record high in early 2022. Pandemic-fueled risky driving may be to blame. (2024)

Car crashes are killing more and more people since the start of the pandemic — even though the volume of traffic hasn’t risen above pre-pandemic levels.

Deaths from car crashes in the first few months of this year hit the highest quarterly total since 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrationannounced last week.

Traffic deaths were up by 7% compared to the first quarter of 2021, and last year's auto deaths were already at a 15-year high.

It's a reversal from the pre-pandemic trend: Deaths from car crashes in the U.S. declined for three years leading up to 2020.

But then the number began to increase even though people drove less in 2020, and 2021 traffic volume was relatively the same as in 2019, according to federal data.

Compared to the first quarter of 2019, the 2022 traffic deaths represent a 22% jump.

"We hoped that was just some unusual blip due to the pandemic, but fatalities have continued to increase," said Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

Goodwin and other road safety experts attribute the increase to riskier driving as fewer people wear seat belts and as speeding and impaired driving rise, among other factors.

David Harkey, the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said risky driving behaviors "were exacerbated during the pandemic, and they seem to have this hangover effect that’s now occurring."

Three Indiana State University students died in a crash Sunday after a vehicle veered off the road and into a tree.

Six people, including a pregnant woman and a 3-year-old child, were killed this month in a multivehicle crash in Los Angeles. Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said one of the vehicles ran a red light at more than 90 mph.

A few days earlier, seven people, five of them children, died in a fiery collision in Hampshire, Illinois.

Actor Anne Heche and Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., died in car crashes this month, as well.

Why are people driving more recklessly?

A 2020 survey from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safetyfound that people who drove more than usual during the pandemic were more likely to engage in riskier behaviors, including reading text messages, speeding, running red lights on purpose, aggressively changing lanes, not wearing seat belts or driving after having consumed alcohol or cannabis.

"A fatality crash is much more likely if somebody isn’t wearing their seat belt or somebody’s speeding," Goodwin said.

In 2020, deaths from speeding-related crashes increased by 17% and deaths from alcohol-impaired driving rose by 14% compared to 2019.

Open highways during the pandemic may have tempted drivers to go faster, experts said. They also pointed to a lack of law enforcement on the road due, in part, to worries about Covid safety and racial profiling. (Black drivers are far more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers.)

"There was this concern of not pulling people over, not engaging with individuals during the pandemic," Harkey said.

In a survey last year of more than 1,000 police officers and deputies, nearly 60% of officers said they were less likely to stop vehicles than they were before 2020. In Illinois, the number of reported traffic stops fell by 37% from 2019 to 2020 after a steady increase from 2015to 2019. And in Vermont, 40% fewer cars were stopped in 2020 than in 2019.

Goodwin said law enforcement has "pretty much returned to where it was before the pandemic," but he speculated that drivers might still have the perception that "they can speed and engage in other potentially risky behaviors and get away with it."

He added that it's hard to know how long the trend will continue: "It’s already lasted longer than we thought it might."

Goodwin also noted that, counterintuitively, the total number of car crashes decreased from 2019 to 2020. According to the Transportation Department, police-reported crashes fell by 22% in that time (the most recent data available), and the number of people injured on roadways decreased by 17%.

Young drivers may be using their phones at the wheel

Cara Hamann, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health who researches transportation safety, pointed to another well-known factor that may have contributed to the rise in traffic deaths: phones.

"Everybody’s checking their phones and distracted while they’re driving," Hamann said. "It is a formula for tragedy, essentially."

For young drivers, she said, that means texting or even watching videos while at the wheel.

"We know younger drivers as a whole are a somewhat riskier group," Goodwin said.

The Transportation Department found that the number of older drivers — people ages 65 and up — involved in fatal crashes decreased by nearly 10% from 2019 to 2020.

"That’s probably because there were fewer older drivers out there on the road, and they’ve been slower to return," Goodwin said.

What can be done?

One of the simplest ways to reduce traffic deaths is to hold drivers accountable for breaking the law, Goodwin said.

"We really need to renew law enforcement efforts to make sure that drivers are aware that officers are out on the roads looking for impaired drivers, drivers who are not wearing seat belts and drivers who are speeding," he said.

Changes to road and car design could also reduce speeding, experts agreed.

Hamann said many roads allow people to go faster than the speed limit.

"Maybe the posted speed limit is 25 or 30, but it’s easy to feel safe driving 40 or 50," she said. "That is an engineering problem or a design problem that should be fixed."

Making roads narrower or installing roundabouts, speed bumps or automated cameras that capture traffic violations could address the problem, she said.

The Transportation Department set up a $5 billion program this year to prevent roadway deaths and injuries by offering grants for projects that lower speed limits or improve road design.

Car features like automatic emergency brakes, seat belt reminders and lower horsepower could also encourage safer driving, Harkey added.

"Horsepower in vehicles has changed over time, and it continues to increase," he said. "More horsepower means people drive faster."

But experts worry that reckless driving has become the new normal.

"The trends are very concerning," Goodwin said. "We need to figure this out quickly so we can turn these trends around."

Aria Bendix

Aria Bendix is the breaking health reporter for NBC News Digital.

Deadly car crashes hit a record high in early 2022. Pandemic-fueled risky driving may be to blame. (2024)


Deadly car crashes hit a record high in early 2022. Pandemic-fueled risky driving may be to blame.? ›

Deadly car crashes hit a high in early 2022. Pandemic-fueled risky driving may be to blame. Deaths from crashes rose by nearly 7% from 2019 to 2020, then by more than 10% from 2020 to 2021. In the first months of this year, the number increased again.

How many people died in car accidents in 2022 in the United States? ›

A total of 42,514 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2022. The U.S. Department of Transportation's most recent estimate of the annual economic cost of crashes is $340 billion (Blincoe et al., 2023). Contributing to the death toll are alcohol, speeding, lack of seat belt use and other problematic behaviors.

What is the largest contributing factor to fatal driving accidents? ›

One of the most common causes of road accidents is reckless or negligent driving. This includes speeding, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and distracted driving.

Are motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. a leading cause of injury and death? ›

“In the United States, motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death, killing over 100 people every day,” said Geretta Hollins, Community Outreach/Injury Prevention Program Coordinator for Burn/Trauma Services at Regional One Health.

What is the #1 contributing factor in many crashes? ›

1. Distracted Driving. At the top of the list, distracted driving is the number one cause of car accidents in the U.S. each year, and though it is a recognized issue, it is becoming increasingly worse. Distracted driving can lead to serious car accidents, often resulting in severe injuries or fatalities.

Which state has the most accidents? ›

States with the most car accidents

California: 3,847 deaths out of 3,558 accidents. Texas: 3,874 deaths out of 3,520 accidents. Florida: 3,331 deaths out of 2,950 accidents. Georgia: 1,664 deaths out of 1,522 accidents.

What year had the most car crash deaths? ›

Driver attitudes and behaviors have changed substantially, as has vehicle safety technology, which makes car travel safer. The population motor-vehicle death rate reached its peak in 1937 with 30.8 deaths per 100,000 population. The current rate is 13.8 per 100,000, representing a 55% improvement.

Who causes the most driving accidents? ›

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that men cause an average of 6.1 million accidents per year in the US, and women cause 4.4 million accidents per year. Males do 62% of the driving, but only cause 58% of the accidents.

What is the largest contributor to car crashes? ›

It is critical for drivers to understand and avoid the most common of these habits, which can greatly decrease the risk of accidents, injuries and fatalities.
  • Speeding. ...
  • Impaired driving. ...
  • Distraction. ...
  • Holding drivers responsible.

What are the odds of dying in a car crash? ›

According to recent data, the odds of dying in a car crash are around 1 in 93. This makes car crashes one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Moreover, the probability of dying in a car accident is higher than that of dying from a fall, which stands at 1 in 98.

Where do car crashes rank on causes of death in the US? ›

Motor vehicle crashes were the 13th leading cause of death overall among all causes in both 2016 and 2017. Motor vehicle traffic crashes were the leading cause of death for ages 3, 11, 12, and 17 to 21 in 2017. In 2016 motor vehicle traffic crashes were the leading cause of death for ages 10, 11, and 17 to 22.

What is the most common cause of death in automobile accidents? ›


Speeding is a leading cause of car accidents. Speeding can involve travelling at high speed or faster than the posted limits on the given road. However, it can also mean driving faster than conditions allow, making it difficult to reduce speed to stop at stop signs or at a red light.

Who causes more accidents in the US? ›

In other words, male drivers are about 37 percent more likely than female drivers to be involved in serious motor vehicle crashes. But the difference in fatal car accidents tilts even more heavily toward male drivers. According to NHTSA: Male drivers were involved in 39,112 fatal crashes.

What are the 3 factors leading to a higher crash risk? ›

Factors that Increase the Risk of Crashes
  • Alcohol. ...
  • Drugs. ...
  • Distracted Driving. ...
  • Driving with Other Teens in the Car. ...
  • Risky Driving. ...
  • Seat Belt Use. ...
  • Nighttime and Weekend Driving.

What factor is involved in most fatal accidents? ›

SPEEDING. Everybody seems to be in a hurry, but driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed limits clearly contributes to auto accidents and accident fatalities. According to the NHTSA, the top reason for traffic accidents and fatalities were driving too fast for the road conditions.

When it comes to crashes, what is the single biggest contributor? ›

Takeaway: Driver error is the leading cause of vehicle collisions in the United States, accounting for 94% of all traffic accidents. The most common causes include distracted driving, driving under the influence, excessive speeding, aggressive driving and drowsy driving.

How many deaths are there in the U.S. per year from car accidents? ›

There are nearly 43,000 fatal crashes a year in the U.S., but there's at least a glimmer of hope: The actual deadly car crash rate is less than 1%.

How many people died in the U.S. every year? ›

In 2022, about 3.27 million deaths were reported in the United States. This figure is an increase from 2.15 million deaths reported in 1990, and from 2.85 in 2019.

What is the death rate in the United States? ›

The age-adjusted death rate decreased by 9.2% from 879.7 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2021 to 798.8 in 2022.

What state has the most fatal car accidents per capita? ›

This rate calculation helps control for differences in the number of vehicles registered among states. The three rate calculations provide different perspectives of fatality risk among states. In 2022, Massachusetts had the lowest death rates per 100,000 population and Mississippi had the highest.

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