DETROIT — The number of people killed on U.S. highways fell slightly from April to June, the first decline in two years as highways became more congested as the pandemic abated. But the government says the death toll remains at a crisis level.
Estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 20,175 people were killed in crashes from January to June, an increase of 0.5% from the same period last year.
However, the second quarter drop ended a series of seven consecutive quarterly increases that began in the summer of 2020. The agency estimated that 10,590 people died on the roads from April to June, almost 5% less than in the same period. period a year ago.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that while fatalities may be declining, they are still at levels that require urgent action. “These deaths are preventable, they are not inevitable, and we must act accordingly,” he said in a prepared statement.
Acting NHTSA Administrator Ann Carlson told a group of state law enforcement officials Monday that she hopes the recent decline is the start of a downward trend, but that the number of deaths remains unacceptable. “That’s not the new normal we want,” she told the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Deaths began to rise two years ago when roads were largely empty due to stay-at-home orders in many states. With less traffic speeds increased, as did reckless and impaired driving. Many people were not wearing seat belts, the governments said.
Carlson said that because estimates for this year are early, the agency doesn’t have details on why deaths were down. The agency’s estimates are often close to the actual numbers, which won’t be released until later in the year.
There was also a small second-quarter drop in the rate of traffic fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, from 1.34 in the second quarter of 2021 to 1.27 this year, Carlson said.
Auto safety advocates welcomed the drop but said the Biden administration can do more to reduce traffic fatalities.
For many months, crashes have been down even as fatalities are up, suggesting reckless driving from the pandemic era may now finally be slowing down, said Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Safety. .
“What it may be is that we are seeing a decrease in some of the problems caused by the pandemic, some of the problems of speeding, open roads and risky driving,” Brooks said. “Traffic is getting back to normal, the roads are not as empty as before.”
“But the fact is the death rate is still very, very high,” he said. “There is a lot that remains to be done.”
He and others described some of the administration’s efforts as helpful, but noted that it has yet to issue a rulemaking proposal to require automatic emergency braking on all passenger vehicles, as required by the recent bipartisan infrastructure law.
“I think it’s premature to get hopeful about the slight drop in fatalities, especially considering the tremendous loss we’ve experienced in the last two years,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
“We know that good safety systems, if put in place, will prevent a lot of accidents,” he said.
Nearly 43,000 people died on American roads last year, the highest number in 16 years when Americans got back on the roads.
The 10.5% increase over the 2020 numbers was the largest percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its fatality data collection system in 1975.
Yen reported from Washington, DC