The Post-Pandemic Epidemic: U.S. Traffic Fatalities Keep Climbing

Perhaps one of the most unexpected challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the surge of traffic fatalities that has accompanied it. However, not everyone agrees on the cause of this dynamic or what to do to address it. Here is what you need to know about the theories behind this phenomenon and what actions are being taken to combat it.

Exploring the Nation’s Surge in Traffic Fatalities

There is no question that the number of individuals killed in traffic accidents has increased since the onset of the 2020 COVID pandemic. In 2019, there were 36,355 fatalities. By 2022, that number had increased to 42,795 traffic fatalities — an 18% increase.

This increase in traffic deaths was felt across the country, from California to Pennsylvania. Some of the states that saw the greatest increase in traffic deaths from 2019 to 2022 included:

  • Vermont, a 64% increase
  • Connecticut, a 54% increase
  • New Hampshire, a 47% increase
  • Washington, a 38% increase
  • Texas, a 24% increase

Idaho, Wyoming, and North Dakota were the only three states that saw a decrease in the number of fatalities in 2022 compared to 2019. 

Motorists are not the only ones affected by these increasing numbers, though. Included within these statistics are pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Pedestrian deaths hit a 40-year high in 2021, when approximately 7,500 were killed in collisions across the nation.

Interestingly, these increased fatality numbers were recorded at a time when the total number of vehicle miles driven in the United States decreased. In 2019, drivers in America traveled 3.3 trillion miles. By 2022, however, that number dropped to 3.17 trillion miles, a decrease of approximately 13 billion miles.

Factors Related to Increased Traffic Fatalities

It is worth noting that this trend has been accompanied by the increase of other factors since 2019. Namely, drunk driving and speeding incidents have also surged.

Drunk Driving

One of these factors is drunk driving. In 2019, 10,196 traffic fatalities alone were alcohol-related. In 2022, that number had increased to 13,524 — a 33% increase.


Similarly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported an increase in speeding-related fatalities. From 2020 to 2021 alone, there was an 8% jump in the number of people killed in accidents in which speeding was a factor. In total, there were 12,330 people killed in speeding accidents. 

In other words, approximately 30% of people killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2021 died in crashes where speed was a factor.

Potential Causes of This Dangerous Trend

While the data showing an increase in traffic fatalities is clear, what is less clear is why this is happening. Most trace the origins of the issue back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a few theories on why this might be the case.

For example, some argue the problem began when there was less traffic during the pandemic. With fewer people on the roads, drivers who were out felt emboldened to drive more carelessly. These new driving behaviors did not stop, even as more traffic returned to highways and roadways.

This careless driving continued without significant law enforcement response since officers were often busy responding to other emergencies. Others contend that the stress associated with the pandemic took a toll on Americans’ mental health, leading them to engage in riskier behavior. 

Risky driving behavior can include speeding, driving while impaired, and distracted driving. This hypothesis is supported by statistics, such as those that show the number of speeding-related fatalities has increased notably since 2019.

Staying Safe on the Road

Determining the causes of — and solutions to — the increase in traffic fatalities is complex. While lax enforcement of traffic laws may have played a role in the increase, the mental health and stress of drivers also likely played a role. 

Many state governments are taking steps to combat this issue. For example, in California, there have been talks of using more speed cameras on highways. Ultimately, though, the responsibility for decreasing motor vehicle fatalities begins with each individual driver. 

To protect the well-being of yourself and others on the road, always make sure to slow down, avoid driving when impaired, and engage in safe driving practices.

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