Why Did Crash Fatalities Spike During the Pandemic?

AAA research finds high-risk young males were a larger share of those who drove more

BOISE – In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, health and safety precautions led to fewer drivers on the road and a significant reduction in the number of vehicle miles traveled.  But despite the drop, there were 38,680 traffic deaths in 2020, the most since 2007.

According to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a small percentage of drivers increased their driving during the pandemic, but they were younger and disproportionately male – a statistically riskier group than the average population.

“There are many possible explanations for the spike in crash fatalities.  Risky drivers represented a higher proportion of those who were on the road, and they also may have engaged in more frequent dangerous behavior with less traffic,” says AAA Idaho public affairs director Matthew Conde.  “Regardless of the cause, the trend for the past two years has been moving in the wrong direction.  We need to break some bad habits and return to safe and engaged driving.”

While most Americans scaled back their driving activities during the pandemic, four percent actually drove more, with nearly two-thirds of the increase coming from young males.  Those who increased their driving were more likely to report engaging in dangerous behavior:

According to the AAA 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 42% in April 2020 before rebounding to roughly 20% below 2019 levels in the latter half of the year.

AAA supports the Safe Systems Approach, which seeks to improve roadway safety by using several countermeasures to anticipate and mitigate the risk of serious crashes rather than simply reacting to crashes that have already occurred.

Tips for safe driving

“It all starts with observing the speed limit,” Conde said.  “Drivers may not realize that you’d have to travel 100 miles to save 5 minutes by moving at 80 mph instead of 75 mph.  The greater likelihood of a severe crash impact isn’t worth the tradeoff.”

AAA encourages drivers to avoid using impairing substances before they get behind the wheel, ditch the distractions (including cell phones and other mobile devices), wear a seat belt, and avoid aggressive driving such as tailgating or weaving in and out of traffic.