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The Emptier Roads of 2020 Were More Lethal

Preliminary data from the National Safety Council shows a 24% spike in the U.S. traffic fatality rate, with drivers traveling faster and more recklessly with fewer people on the road.

The aftermath of a fatal crash in Long Beach, California, in June. As traffic jams subsided during the pandemic, traffic deaths surged. 

The aftermath of a fatal crash in Long Beach, California, in June. As traffic jams subsided during the pandemic, traffic deaths surged. 

Photographer: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

When the pandemic swept across the U.S. in March 2020, vehicle traffic was largely stilled in major cities. Hazy skies over Los Angeles and New York City cleared up with the loss of tailpipe pollution. Quieter residential streets made room for pop-up walking and cycling corridors. As millions of commuters stayed home for months, safety researchers hoped that less overall driving throughout 2020 would also mean fewer U.S. traffic fatalities — a faint silver lining amid a much-larger Covid-19 death toll. 

But that last benefit did not come to pass. “We saw the opposite,” said Maureen Vogel, the communications director at the National Safety Council, an advocacy group. As many as 42,060 people died on U.S. roads last year, or 8% more than in 2019, according to preliminary data released by the NSC. Combined with a 13% decline in vehicle-miles traveled, the rate of death on American roads jumped 24% year over year — the sharpest spike the NSC has measured since 1924, Vogel said.