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Despite lockdowns throughout the country, which lead to less vehicles in the streets, traffic deaths in the U.S. soared in 2020. However, the impact wasn’t consistent across different groups. Black Americans were reportedly disproportionately affected in the increase in fatalities.
The highest it’s been since 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 38,680 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year. In 2020, there was a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from 2019. Broken down along racial lines, white pedestrian deaths grew 4%, American Indian fatalities grew 11%, and Asian and Pacific Islander deaths declined 29%.
The largest increase in deaths — representing 23% — was among Black people. According to NHTSA data, the deaths of Black Americans had already been increasing in recent years, with a 16% increase from 2005 to 2019. In contrast, traffic deaths for White people fell 27.8% in the same time period. From 2010 to 2019, Black people were killed by drivers at an 82% higher rate than White, non-Hispanic Americans, according to the transportation organization Smart Growth America.
However, as CNN Business noted, the 2020 NHTSA results appeared to be a stark illustration of which populations could and could not afford to stay home throughout the pandemic. Traffic safety advocates reportedly told the publication the 2020 increases are concerning but not surprising, and said with less cars on the roads, people drove faster, making roadways less safe for drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Where people live and work were likely contributing factors to who died, too.
Transportation experts reportedly said that the pandemic worsened long-running inequities and made them more glaring. And according to Alex Karner, a University of Texas-Austin professor who researches the environmental and health effects of transportation, Black Americans have historically borne the brunt of transportation-related impacts.
Following an inquiry regarding Buttigieg’s apparent silence on the new data, a NHTSA spokesperson reportedly sent CNN Business a statement from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg calling safety a top priority. “Last year’s traffic fatality rates and the racial disparities reflected in them are unacceptable. This reflects broader patterns of inequity in our country — and it underscores the urgent work we must undertake as a nation to make our roads safer for every American,” Buttigieg said in the statement.
Buttigieg also said that President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for a $20 billion investment in safety, including $10 billion for safe streets, which would fund efforts to reduce accidents.
According to Alex Engel, a spokesman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the U.S. is the only industrialized country with worsening traffic safety. The country has twice the traffic deaths as Canada, when adjusted for population, according to data from the World Health Organization.