Even though Americans drove less in 2020 due to the pandemic, early estimates of crash fatalities from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released Thursday reveal the largest projected number of deaths since 2007.

According to NHSTA, an estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, representing an increase of about 7.2 percent as compared to the 36,096 fatalities reported in 2019.

Preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2020 fell by about 430.2 billion miles—a 13.2 percent decrease.

The fatality rate for 2020 was 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from 1.11 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2019.

NHTSA’s analysis shows that the main behaviors that drove this increase include: impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.

While passenger vehicle occupants had the largest number of fatalities, accounting for 23,395 of the 38,680 (up 5 percent), motorcyclists saw the biggest increase in crash deaths, rising 9 percent to 5,015.

Deaths among bike riders also increased, rising 5 percent to 846, while pedestrian deaths were estimated at about the same levels in 2020 and 2019.

NHSTA said crashes involving a large truck were among the few areas where the agency projects a declining number of deaths in 2020, but the drop was only 2 percent. Crash fatalities among people aged 65 fell by about 9 percent.

Crash factors reviewed by NHTSA that showed the largest increases in 2020 as compared to 2019 included:

  • Occupant ejection, up 20 percent.
  • Unrestrained occupants of passenger vehicles, up 15 percent.
  • Crashes on urban interstates, up 15 percent
  • Crashes on urban local/collector roads, up 12 percent;
  • Speeding-related crashes, up 11 percent

Nighttime driving produced an 11 percent jump in crash deaths, and deaths from weekend crashes rose 9 percent.

Demographically, non-Hispanic Black people were the most impacted, with crash deaths rising 23 percent.

Source: U.S. NHSTA