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Traffic fatalities rose an estimated 10.5% in 2021, reach 16-year high, NHTSA reports

Trend in fatality rate for vehicle miles traveled decreased for three quarters of 2021

Traffic fatalities across the U.S. rose 10.5% in 2021 to a projected 42,915 deaths, reaching a 16-year high, according to statistics released today by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

That projected increase from 38,824 fatalities in 2020 is “the highest number of fatalities since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history,” NHTSA announced today.

“We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in the news release. “With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the president’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways.” 

ATSSA President & CEO Stacy Tetschner joined Buttigieg in expressing concern over the record-breaking fatality rate.

“ATSSA’s members have devoted their lives to roadway safety and providing the infrastructure and technology needed to save the lives of the motoring public as well as men and women working on our roadways,” Tetschner said. “This unprecedented increase in traffic fatalities brings home the importance of our work and the necessity of government and private industry partnering to provide safe thoroughfares. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was enacted into law in November, provides historic levels of federal funding for roadway safety infrastructure projects. Departments of transportation around the country, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, must prioritize getting these funds to critical, lifesaving safety projects as soon as possible. We know that safer roads save lives. ATSSA members are ready to go to work with their agency partners to move toward zero deaths on all roads.”

The statistics provided by NHTSA are early estimates of traffic fatalities and fatality rates for 2021. The following categories saw some of the largest increases, according to the NHTSA analysis:

  • Fatalities in multi-vehicle crashes, up 16% 
  • Fatalities on urban roads, up 16% 
  • Fatalities among drivers 65 and older, up 14% 
  • Pedestrian fatalities, up 13% 
  • Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck, up 13% 
  • Daytime fatalities, up 11% 
  • Motorcyclist fatalities, up 9% 
  • Bicyclist fatalities, up 5% 
  • Fatalities in speeding-related crashes, up 5% 
  • Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes, up 5%.

The one bit of positive news in the NHTSA report was seen in data looking at vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) preliminary data show that VMT increased by about 325 billion miles, about 11.2% over 2020.

Fatalities per 100 million VMT dipped slightly from 1.34 in 2020 to 1.33 in 2021, according to NHTSA. But, more importantly, while the rate continued to climb for the first quarter of 2021, it declined in each of the next three quarters.

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