Risky Drivers May Be to Blame for Jump in Traffic Fatalities

AAA Foundation research finds high-risk drivers drove more during 2020 while safer drivers drove less

PRESS RELEASE – While most Americans reduced their driving in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a small portion actually drove more, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The study found this small group of drivers took more risks than the average driver, which could have contributed to the rise in fatal crashes during a year when traffic counts plunged.

“Our research finds that higher-risk motorists accounted for a greater share of drivers during the pandemic than before it,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Safety-minded individuals drove less, while many who increased their driving tended to engage in riskier behaviors behind the wheel.”

Solving the Puzzle:

Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, crashes involving impairment, speeding, red-light running, aggressiveness and non-seatbelt use have surged. To understand the rise in dangerous driving behaviors, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety examined whether the pandemic changed the composition of drivers on the road.

The Foundation’s new research finds while only a small percentage of drivers (4%) increased their driving due to the pandemic, they were younger and disproportionately malea statistically riskier driver group than the average population.

In addition, those who increased their driving during the pandemic were more likely to report engaging in the following risky driving behaviors in the previous 30 days:

Percent of Drivers who Engaged in Various Risky Behaviors in the 30 Days Before the Survey (October-November 2020)

  • Speeding 10+ mph Over Speed Limit on a Residential Street:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic: 51%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 35%
  • Reading a Text:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic: 50%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 33%
  • Red-Light Running on Purpose:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic: 45%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 25%
  • Changing Lanes Aggressively:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic: 43%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 20%
  • Not Wearing a Seatbelt:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic: 21%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 12%
  • Alcohol-Impaired Driving:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic:13%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 6%
  • Driving After Cannabis Use:
    • People Who Increased Driving During Pandemic: 13%
    • People Who Did Not Increase Their Driving: 4%

That Data – Less Drivers:

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions have significantly affected travel behavior and traffic safety in the United States. According to the Foundation’s newest American Driving Survey, during the early months of the pandemic, the average daily number of driving trips made by U.S. adults decreased by an estimated 42% in April 2020, rebounded slightly, and then leveled off in the second half of 2020 at 2.2 daily trips, roughly 20% below the 2.7 daily trips in the second half of 2019.

The Data – More Fatalities:

And yet, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its 2020 traffic fatality data, it found an estimated 38,680 people died in vehicle crashes—the largest number of fatalities since 2007. This represents an increase of about 7.2% compared to the 36,096 deaths reported in 2019.

Travel in Ohio was down about 12.5% in 2020 and traffic deaths rose 7% compared to 2019. Ohio ended the year with 1,230 traffic deaths – 75 more than the 1,155 deaths reported in 2019, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.

And the surge in fatalities continued into 2021, according to NHTSA’s new data for traffic fatalities for the first nine months of 2021, finding that an estimated 31,720 people died in crashes from January through September 2021, an increase of approximately 12% compared to the first nine months of 2020.

The increase in traffic fatalities is not a worldwide occurrence. Road deaths have been reported to be lower in almost all other high-income countries since 2019.

Taking Action with the Safe System Approach:

“Despite safer roads, safer vehicles and stronger traffic safety laws on the books, the U.S. has witnessed more, not less, deaths on our roadways even at a time when other nations saw dramatic drops,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “What is absolutely clear to AAA is that it will take new action to get us closer to zero traffic deaths.”

AAA is a strong supporter of adopting the Safe System Approach (SSA) to roadway safety. The SSA uses current effective countermeasures to create multiple layers of protection for transportation network users, rather than responding reactively only after there is evidence of a specific safety problem. Other countries have leveraged SSA to curb traffic deaths — 47% (Australia) and 80% (Spain).

Tips for Drivers:

For drivers, AAA recommends these safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Obey speed limits. Drivers tend to overestimate the time saved by speeding. You’d have to travel 100 miles to save roughly 5 minutes, moving at 80 mph instead of 75 mph. Speed kills and isn’t worth the cost. And recent AAA Foundation research shows that small speed increases were enough to raise a driver’s risk of severe injury or death.
  • Only drive sober. If you consume marijuana or alcohol, or use potentially impairing prescription medications, then don’t drive. And if you’re going to drive, don’t consume these substances.
  • Out of sight, out of mind. Stow your smartphone away, turn it to airplane mode, or activate call/text blocking features like Apple’s Do Not Disturb.
  • Buckle Up. Properly wearing a seat belt is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash. Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of serious injury or death in a crash by up to 50%.
  • Stay Cool. AAA encourages drivers to maintain a cool head and focus on reaching their destination safely. If you encounter a dangerous driver, maintain space around your vehicle and contact 9-1-1 if needed.

About AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Foundation for Traffic Safety was established in 1947 by AAA. The Foundation is a nonprofit, publicly funded, 501(c)(3) charitable research and educational organization. The AAA Foundation’s mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by researching their causes and by educating the public about strategies to prevent crashes and reduce injuries when they do occur. This research develops educational materials for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users.

About AAA

AAA provides more than 62 million members with travel-, insurance-, financial- and automotive-related services. Since its founding in 1902, the not-for-profit, fully tax-paying AAA has been a leader and advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. AAA clubs can be visited online at AAA.com.


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