Traffic fatalities keep rising, with deadliest 3-month period in 20 years

It’s a disturbing story that just keeps getting worse. U.S. traffic fatalities have continued to climb — a trajectory that began two years ago as the nation emerged from pandemic lockdowns. But while Covid’s death rates have fallen, death rates from cars have only gone up.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday said that traffic deaths rose another 7% in the first quarter of 2022, to an estimated 9,560 people. That’s the deadliest three-month span in two decades. The 7% increase is compared to the same period last year, in which 8,935 died.

A significant culprit for this grim toll is simply miles driven: Americans drove 40 billion more miles in Q1 2022 than they did in Q1 2021, up 5.6%.

Yet calculating deaths per 100 million miles driven also shows an increase, rising from 1.25 deaths to 1.27. 

Before 2020, traffic deaths had been in decline for three consecutive years. But ever since, and in addition to the increase in miles driven, experts blame an increase in speeding

, along with reckless and impaired driving. Last year, traffic deaths surged 10.5%, for a total of 42,915 Americans killed. That was the highest annual toll in 16 years — and the largest percentage increase since NHTSA
began tracking death data back in 1975.

The government has pledged to fund investments in speed enforcement and to build safer roads. In May, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg designated $5 billion from the Biden administration’s infrastructure package for cities to implement the DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy to reverse the deadly trend.

“The overall numbers are still moving in the wrong direction,” NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said in a prepared statement. “Now is the time for all states to double down on traffic safety.”

NHTSA is running a series of ads urging people to slow down and not to drive drunk or otherwise impaired (videos above and below). Expect an increased enforcement effort nationwide for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

The agency’s numbers for the quarter, and for last year, are estimates, but they usually are close to the final tally. The final numbers for 2021 will be released this fall.

Cliff, who was confirmed by the Senate to run NHTSA just three months ago, is leaving the agency next month to run the California Air Resources Board, which regulates pollution. Chief Counsel Ann Carlson will run the agency until a new administrator is nominated.