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Roadway fatalities and work zone incidents in 2020 spell concern for roadway safety advocates

NHTSA projects 7.2% increase in motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2020

Two reports this month offer stark reminders of the risks of highway work zones and the importance of roadway safety.

Today we look at the latest data from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which released its early estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities for 2020.

Tomorrow, we will look at results of a survey of highway workers regarding work zone incidents and the issues contractors identified as key to improving safety for employees in work zones.

NHTSA released preliminary statistics for 2020 suggesting the pandemic’s reduced traffic didn’t stem the tide of roadway fatalities. Instead, the early estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities shows:

  • 38,680 people died in traffic crashes,
  • an increase of about 7.2% from 2019.

That reverses a slight downward trend the prior three years.

A second NHTSA report examined driver behavior and found three key issues in the 2020 crashes:

  • Unrestrained occupants increased 15%
  • Speeding-related crashes increased 11%
  • Police-reported alcohol involvement increased 9%.

The total of 38,680 deaths in 2020 is the largest number of fatalities in 13 years, if the NHTSA projections in the early estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities  report are correct.

In addition, whereas motor vehicle fatalities decreased slightly (0.6%) in the second quarter of 2020 as compared to the same period for 2019, NHTSA statistics show fatalities increased each of the other three quarters:

  • Up 1.1% in the first quarter
  • Up 13.6% in the third quarter
  • Up 13.1% in the fourth quarter of the year.

The COVID-19 stay-at-home period started in mid-March of 2020 and continued through April with some states reopening to a degree in May and others in June.

The impact of the stay-at-home orders was seen in a 13.2% decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to 2019. The report states that, “Increased fatalities (7.2%) combined with the decreased VMT resulted in a steep increase of the fatality rate per 100 million VMT (1.37) in 2020, as compared to the fatality rate of 1.11 in 2019.”

Every region of the country showed an increase in the estimated fatalities from 2019 to 2020, the NHTSA report shows, with four regions showing the biggest percentage increase:

  • Region 2: Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – 10%
  • Region 1: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont – 9%
  • Region 3: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. – 9 %
  • Region 7: Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska – 9%.
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