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New Report: Traffic Fatalities Went Up in 2020 Despite Fewer Drivers on the Road

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NPR
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A new report shows disturbing trends in traffic fatalities in 2020, despite less driving. A Virginia Tech professor says the pandemic brought the perfect storm of conditions for high-risk behavior.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projections show last year resulted in the largest number of road fatalities since 2007, just over 38,500. That’s a 7% increase over 2019.

Engineering professor Charlie Klauer specializes in the effects of distraction and fatigue on driving. She says while many stayed home last year, the pandemic drove others towards drug and alcohol abuse, speeding behind the wheel, and not wearing seatbelts:

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Credit Virginia Tech
Charlie Klauer is a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

“Mileage is down, traffic is down, exposure is down, crashes overall are down, but fatalities- which typically takes a combination of high-risk behaviors – they did not come down," Klauer explains. "That is extremely unfortunate.”

Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles has yet to release a formal report of 2020 traffic deaths, but the agency’s Electronic Traffic Data System shows 847 people died on the state’s roads – that’s 20 more than in 2019.

Klauer says the state’s new law banning holding a cellphone while driving – which took effect in January – could have an impact on this year’s crashes and fatalities:

“And with fewer vehicles on the road, and higher speeds, I’m certainly hoping that there is less hands-free use," Klauer explains. "But my guess is until things return to some level of normalcy, and what that means going forward, is really yet to be determined.”

Klauer says it will take a couple years to analyze the data, and show what it means for trends in transportation safety.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.