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Highway Fatalities Fell in 2023 – But Are Still Up Over Pre-COVID Totals

by | April 2, 2024

Federal regulators said the number of Americans who died in highway crashes last year fell by 3.6%. But the total is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, with safety experts pointing to a variety of causes, including distracted and drunk driving, as well as failure by passengers to wear seatbelts.

Safety experts blame a variety of factors, including drunk, drugged and distracted driving.

In all, 40,990 Americans were killed in crashes involving motor vehicles in 2023, down from 42,514 who died in 2022, according to a new estimate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This marks the second decline in a row.

Highways fatalities surged during the COVID pandemic, even as traffic initial fell during nationwide lockdowns. In 2021, NHTSA reported, 42,915 Americans were killed. That was the highest figure since 2005.

Years-long decline reverses

U.S. highway deaths began to decline sharply early in the new millennium, reaching a low of 32,479 in 2011. That reflected improvements in vehicle safety, a crackdown on motorists under the influence of alcohol and drugs and increased seatbelt usage.

But the numbers began rising again a decade ago, surging to 35,485 in 2015 and 37,806 a year later.

The big jump came as COVID hit, something that took many safety experts by surprise. In 2020, NHTSA reported highway fatalities rose to 38,824, an increase of about 2,500. And 2021 saw another jump, to 42,514.

Volvo XC60 Crash Test2

Fatalities have surged since before COVID despite efforts to make vehicles safer.

Why are fatalities so high?

A variety of factors have caught blame. As COVID lockdowns began, traffic in many major cities fell by as much as 80%, according to tracking services like Inrix. Concurrently, police around the country reported a surge in speeding and reckless driving. Barely a month into those lockdowns, the California Highway Patrol reported an 87% increase in citations handed out to motorists exceeding 100 mph – even though drivers faced fines of at least $1,000 and a 30-day license suspension.

A variety of other factors caught blame, including increased use of alcohol and drugs after several decades of decline in deaths linked to motorists found to be under the influence. There were signs that failure to use seatbelts played a growing role. And NHTSA and other safety groups pointed to increased incidents of distracted driving.

“Distracted driving is extremely dangerous,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Sophie Shulman

said as the agency launched a new campaign dubbed “Put the Phone Away or Pay.”

While Shulman said motorists could pay in the form of fines or points on their license “it can also mean pay the ultimate price – deadly crash that takes your life or the life of someone else on the road.”

More Auto Safety News

Pedestrians, cyclists and the elderly

A more detailed breakout of the 2023 highway fatality numbers will be released later this year. But NHTSA data from 2022 showed that some groups continued to suffer an increase in deaths. All told, about one in five of those killed last year were not in a vehicle at the time of their death.

The number of pedestrians killed in motor vehicle accidents rose by 0.7%, to 7,522, even as the overall highway death toll began to settle back. And 1,105 cyclists also were killed. That was a 13% increase, and the most since 1980.

More older drivers were also killed than at any time since 1975, when NHTSA began tracking the data. A total of 7,870 people were killed in crashes involving motorists at least 65 years of age, an increase of 4.7%.


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