The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the number of road fatalities per mile in the U.S. rose in the first half of 2020. That increase happened despite there being less traffic due to the pandemic keeping many people off the roads.

During the first six months of 2020, total traffic volume decreased by more than 16%. However, traffic volumes decreased more significantly than the number of fatal crashes. That means the traffic fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased to 1.25. That’s up from 1.06 in the first six months of 2019.

Overall, the rate of crashes increased, even with fewer drivers on the roads. The second quarter of 2020, marked by the onset of the pandemic, saw only a three percent decrease in traffic deaths despite a 16% reduction in overall traffic volume.

The NHTSA attributed the increase in crashes to the fact that the drivers that remained on the road were more likely to engage in risky behavior. They cited factors like speeding, driving drunk, and avoiding seatbelts as potential problems.

Cause and Effect

The NHTSA also released data on seriously or fatally injured road users at five participating trauma centers during the first six months. They found that between mid-March and mid-July, almost two-thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. In particular, the number of drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March, compared to the previous six months. Meanwhile marijuana use increased by 50% in their results.

Precise data on seatbelt use wasn’t included in the NHTSA report. However, they were still able to infer a drop in usage of seatbelts from an increase in ejection rates. That’s the polite way of saying someone was thrown from a vehicle in a crash. The report said this increase was mostly found in males aged 18 to 34. Drivers living in rural areas were also more likely to skip their seatbelts.

Reduced access to public transportation during the pandemic may have also played a role in the rise of crashes. The NHTSA theorizes that the increased fatalities were partly a result of people who drove themselves home after drinking or taking drugs. They may have normally taken a bus or taxi home. However, many of those services were reduced or shuttered. Even if they were available, many people were understandably anxious about getting in a crowded subway car or a stranger’s taxi. The result, says the NHTSA, was a increase in fatality rates.


Devon is a writer, editor, and veteran of the online publishing world. He has a particular love for classic muscle cars.