There’s no denying that the year 2020 was full of ups and downs. If there was one thing that we learned and the COVID-19 pandemic drove home, it was that both personal and public health safety were integral in feeling secure.

But it seems as if, based off of new findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this proves to be untrue for a fair amount of drivers on American roadways. Despite less cars on the roadways, 2020 traffic deaths spiked.

So – how do you explain such an uptick in negative driving trends?

2020 traffic deaths – by the numbers

Such a statement may be the exact opposite of what you would’ve expected to hear from a year where Americans drove 13 percent fewer miles, but truth can at times be stranger than fiction.

How many car crashes in 2020 caused fatalities? Astoundingly, over 38,000 people were killed in driving crashes in 2020, around seven percent more than 2019, making this the highest total of driving fatalities since 2007. As more people were on the move the latter half of the year, 2020 traffic deaths increased more than 13 percent.

→ Download Now: What Every Company Needs to Know About Driver Safety Infographic

Although these are preliminary findings, 2020 traffic deaths rose most in the following major categories in comparison to 2019:

  • Passenger vehicle occupants
  • Pedestrians
  • Motorcyclists
  • Bicyclists

Additional crash factors that showed the largest 2020 increases from 2019 included:

  • Occupant ejection
  • Unrestrained occupants of passenger vehicles
  • On urban interstates
  • On urban local roads
  • In speeding-related crashes
  • On rural local roads
  • During the nighttime
  • During the weekend
  • In rollover crashes
  • In single-vehicle crashes
  • In police-reported alcohol involvement crashes

What’s the explanation for these driving trends?

Such statistics as the ones seen above prove the complete opposite of what would commonly be assumed during a time of great disruption that resulted in fewer cars on the road and employees working from home.

But, as the roads become emptier and once-frequent drivers were bound to the confines of home, some motorists remaining behind the wheel felt empowered to go faster, act more recklessly and generally engage in more unsafe behavior. Such behavior in turn accounted for an increase in crashes including higher alcohol use, failure to wear seat belts and speeding.

Certain driving behaviors can prove deadly. Our data shows that speeding 15 MPH over the limit increases a crash by 67 percent. Additionally, a history of reckless, careless, inattentive or negligent driving increases the likelihood of a crash by 64 percent.

Such driving statistics, when paired with driving trends, as well as the idea that enforcement at the beginning of the pandemic ceased instead of slowing down things like traffic stops to help limit virus exposure, created the perfect storm that explains the increase in 2020 traffic deaths.

Additional alarming driving trends presented themselves because of increased dangerous roadway behavior – including increases in pedestrian fatalities and street racing.

Pedestrian fatalities

Pedestrian fatalities in 2020 increased by nearly five percent from 2019, the largest increase seen since the 1970s, when data collection around pedestrian fatalities began. Reports from all 50 states and Washington D.C. put the projected number of pedestrians killed by drivers at 6,721, or nearly 18 fatal incidents a day.

Factoring in the decrease in volume of drivers, the pedestrian fatality rate increased from five percent to an astounding 21 percent. Some of the most common causes of these incidents included speeding on busy streets with many businesses that have a lot of foot traffic, including grocery stores or post offices, as well distractions, from both the drivers and pedestrians.

Street racing

Illegal street racing surged since the pandemic began. Increases in the driving trend were seen in states such as Georgia, New York, New Mexico and Oregon, to name a few. With more time for people to work on their cars, sheer boredom, the media glorifying street racing in television and movies and time for niche communities to bond, this illegal behavior gained traction.

Emptier roadways acted in tandem as a source of encouragement for those looking for that final proverbial green light. It remains integral to know that your employees aren’t engaging in such dangerous behavior whether on or off the clock.

This behavior isn’t hard to find, either and action is being taken against it – law enforcement operations focused on combatting street racing in states like Colorado. Hundreds of deaths annually are reported. Roadway disruptions brought on by motorists blocking highway traffic for hours have increased.

While states including Georgia, Mississippi and New York work have passed laws aimed at combatting the rise in illegal street racing, in locations like New York that have had notoriously busy roadways, the state saw over 1,000 street racing complaints spanning a six-month period in 2020, almost five times the complaints submitted in 2019.

What does the increase in 2020 traffic deaths mean for your business?

When looking at how many car crashes in 2020 occurred, such data only further stresses the need to change the way companies think of driver safety. Instead of exclusively impacting singular drivers, the behavior of those who get behind the wheel has the potential to generate long-lasting consequences for both companies and communities alike.

After all, driver safety isn’t a static concept but instead a set of living initiatives that need to be tended to. Businesses like yours should make employees aware of these driving trends as well as increased speeding to ensure they understand the risks of the road. Once you’ve made your drivers aware of these alarming driving trends, here’s how you can further keep safe driving top of mind.

Four ways to keep safe driving top of mind

Create a positive safety culture

Transform the way that you speak about safety and the initiatives that follow. Instead of looking at the ways in which safety or lack thereof is hindering your company, focus on the results.

Use tangible examples that highlight the positives of following safety precautions when speaking to your employee drivers. Contextually, the more often you speak to your drivers about the results of safety, the more they’re able to correlate their actions to real-world behaviors and consequences.

Put in place a continuously evolving safety policy

One of the best ways to get in front of such behavior like the actions seen during the pandemic includes learning from current trends and letting data inform your evolving safety efforts.

Keeping track of current trends through monitoring trade publications or using tools including Google Alerts for relevant news your company cares about will allow businesses to remain agile in keeping their safety policy relevant.

Even if reevaluating every quarter based off of data or best practices released, a safety policy and subsequent driver safety efforts need to be consistently reworked to keep drivers, companies and communities safer. 

Enact frequent driver training

Wouldn’t you rather be proactive? After all, it’s better to have ongoing driver training aimed at preventing crashes rather than reactive training after a crash or incident has occurred. Providing preventative driver training focused on the corrective areas your drivers can improve in is integral in retaining those who work for you.

Concepts like frequency of driver training matter, with our statistics showing that the number of driver training courses taken per driver per year has a direct, positive impact on safe behaviors. Eight to ten courses taken annually can considerably improve driver safety and ensures increased knowledge stickiness.

The line you’re able to draw from number of courses taken per year to positive changes in driver behavior showcases the need to enroll drivers in trainings. Consider the statistics from the past year – if you had the ability to know that your drivers were safer on the road as a result of training courses taken numerous times, you wouldn’t think twice about it.

Ensure employees drive defensively

Speak to employees about the importance of defensive driving. Defensive driving focuses primarily on predicting hazards on the roads, allowing drivers to defend themselves against catastrophic roadway incidents caused by bad drivers, drunk drivers and poor weather

Many employees are aware that they need to drive defensively but fall victim to the pitfalls of the road. Some of the most common ways to practice defensive driving yet where many falter include planning for the unexpected, controlling speed, reacting to other drivers and avoiding distracted driving, to name a few.

Ensure your drivers aren’t making assumptions about the intentions of those they’re sharing the roadways with. This is another opportunity where training courses addressing defensive driving techniques can be beneficial.

2021 doesn’t seem any better – so what can you do?

Unfortunately, the trend in driving fatalities shows no signs of slowing down upon receiving the first round of 2021 data. In fact, first quarter 2021 driving fatalities were the highest since at least 2009. During that time, the NHTSA estimated that 8,730 people died in motor vehicle crashes, around a 10.5% increase from the first quarter of the year in 2020.

If driver behaviors like drowsy, distracted and impaired driving as well as a lack of seatbelt wearing (to name only a few of many) continue occurring, so will the increase in fatalities. That’s why your company needs to be prepared instead of weary when protecting your drivers.

The best place to start is by gaining an understanding of what driver safety is. To learn about additional driver safety statistics and what they mean for your drivers behind the wheel, download our infographic.  


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