Traffic Deaths Rose 18.4% in First Half of 2021

Might Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg actually try and do something about it?

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Drew Angerer/ Getty Images

美国维epartment of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released data showing that more people died in car crashes in the first six months of 2021 than any year since 2006 and the increase over the previous year, 18.4%, is the largest since they started collecting the data.Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigiegsaid in a statement:

"This is a crisis. More than 20,000 people died on U.S. roads in the first six months of 2021, leaving countless loved ones behind. We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America. Today we are announcing that we will produce the Department’s first ever National Roadway Safety Strategy to identify action steps for everyone working to save lives on the road. No one will accomplish this alone. It will take all levels of government, industries, advocates, engineers, and communities across the country working together toward the day when family members no longer have to say goodbye to loved ones because of a traffic crash.”

This is actually a remarkable statement and a complete change in tone from the previous administration, and not just because he said crash, not accident. Deputy Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff had something to say about this too:

“The report is sobering. It’s also a reminder of what hundreds of millions of people can do every day, right now, to combat this: Slow down, wear seat belts, drive sober, and avoid distractions behind the wheel. All of us must work together to stop aggressive, dangerous driving and help prevent fatal crashes.”
increase in road deaths


The Department of Transportation (DoT) also released a fascinating research note addressing that driving patterns and behavior changed because of the pandemic. There were fewer drivers, but the ones remaining on the road engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, not wearing seat belts, and driving under the influence.

The note stated: "Traffic data cited in those reports showed average speeds increased during the last three quarters of 2020, and extreme speeds, those 20 miles per hour (or more) higher than the posted speed limit, became more common. These findings were supported by analyses of data from fatal crashes that show an estimated 11% increase in speeding-related fatalities."

The note also found an increase in the rate of pedestrian deaths. To address the issue, the DoT is developing a National Roadway Safety Strategy to ensure "Safer People, Safer Roads, Safer Vehicles, Safer Speeds, and Post-Crash Care." Stephanie Pollock, the acting Federal Highway Administration administrator, says: “Safer roads and safer speeds are key parts of addressing this crisis of fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways.”

What is remarkable about all this is the change in tone with the new administration.We have been complaining for yearsabout the "blame the victim" attitude at the NHTSA—how they used to say "safety is a shared responsibility." You couldn't even walk down a sidewalk without being blamed for your own misfortune, looking at your phone instead of being ready to jump out of the way.

We at Treehugger were not alone in demanding slower and safer vehicles and more consideration of pedestrians. The point of all this is to get people out of cars and onto bikes or sidewalks, not scare them to death.

comparing 2020 to 2021 safety messages
2020 message on the left, 2021 on the right.


A great demonstration of the change in attitude is the difference between Pedestrian Safety Month graphics from 2020 on the left and 2021 on the right. The older one puts the onus on the pedestrian to dress up and carry a flashlight, pedestrian blaming at its worst. The newer one clearly puts the onus on the driver.

2021 messages


And look at this! Bump-outs at intersections that force drivers to slow down, rather than big radiused curves that let drivers zip around corners. And here is a department of the U.S. government actually relating speed to the rate of death. We have been showing this for years, but the manual for traffic control issued by the Federal Highway Administration always prioritized the motorist, making roadsdangerous by design. As Greg Shill notes in theHarvard Law Review:

"They prioritize vehicular speed over public safety, mobility over other uses of public space, and driving over other modes of mobility. With these car-centric priorities, the Manual has helped generate a nearly constant and fast-moving stream of vehicle traffic that renders road users like pedestrians, wheelchair users, and cyclists vulnerable. Moreover, by giving preference to driving over other modes of transportation, the Manual has indirectly facilitated a rise in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions that are the single largest contributor to climate change."

Perhaps that manual might finally get revised. Who knows, perhaps Buttigieg might do something about vehicle design andmake trucks and SUVs as safe for pedestrians as cars, or evenbring in speed limiters! We can dream.

View Article Sources
  1. "Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities First Half (January-June) of 2021."美国维epartment of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,2021.

  2. "Continuation of Research on Traffic Safety During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: January-June 2021."U.S. Department of Transportation, 2021.