Traffic fatalities inched higher last year but pedestrian and bicycle deaths rose by historic amounts. In 2021, pedestrians killed jumped 13% to 7,342, the most since 1981. The number of people on bicycles who were killed rose 5% to 985, the most since at least 1980, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the United States needs safer drivers, vehicles, roads and speeds.
“These deaths are preventable, not inevitable, and we should act accordingly,” Buttigieg said in a statement.
Traffic fell during the pandemic lockdowns but the drivers who remained on the road tended to increase their speeds and engage in riskier behavior, apparently thinking that police were less likely to issue tickets during the pandemic.
But as traffic resumed this year, deaths began to climb and hit a 20-year high in early 2022. Traffic deaths in the first three months of 2022 were up 21% over the 7,893 deaths in same period in 2020.
NHTSA said its research indicates incidents of speeding and traveling without wearing seatbelts were higher than before the pandemic.
Pedestrian deaths have increased 59 percent since reaching their low point in 2009 and account for 17 percent of crash fatalities, according to a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The rates of pedestrian deaths in motor vehicle crashes per 100,000 people are highest for people ages 20-69.
Pedestrian deaths occur primarily in urban areas, IIHS noted. It said that engineering measures that separate vehicles and pedestrians, such as sidewalks, refuge islands, overpasses and underpasses, and barriers, can reduce the problem. Increased illumination, improved signal timing at intersections, and beacons that alert drivers to stop at crosswalks when pedestrians are present also can be effective.
Because traffic speeds affect the risk and severity of pedestrian crashes, reducing speeds can lower pedestrian deaths.
Bicycle deaths continue to rise, in lockstep with the growing popularity of biking around urban areas and the trend of local governments encouraging bicycle riding through the addition of bike lanes and other supposed safety measures.
In 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board called for improved safety measures, including safer roadway designs, new standards for rider visibility, and measures to speed the rollout of crash avoidance systems that can detect bicyclists. Some newer cars have such systems although their reliability has yet to be proven.
“If we do not improve roadway infrastructure for bicyclists, more preventable crashes will happen and more cyclists will die in those preventable crashes,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said when the 2019 report was released. “If we do not enhance bicyclist conspicuity, more bicyclists will die in preventable crashes. If we do not act to mitigate head injury for more bicyclists, additional bicyclists will die.”