The pandemic-spiked increase in traffic deaths appears to be waning after a run of nearly three years.
Figures released Thursday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed deaths declined for the first six months of 2023 by 3.3%, marking five consecutive quarters in which deaths declined. That followed more than 30 months of sharp increases that experts tied to reduced pandemic traffic encouraging remaining drivers to engage in dangerous practices such as speeding, not wearing seat belts and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Overall, the number of deaths declined to 19,515. The reduction occurred despite an increase in driving by 2.3%, which dropped the anticipated death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled from 1.31 to 1.24 for the first six months of the year.
“After spiking during the pandemic, traffic deaths are continuing to slowly come down — but we still have a long way to go,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release. In January 2022, Buttigieg issued a call for action through the National Roadway Safety Strategy that stressed teaching people to be safer drivers, building safer roads, improving vehicle safety, driving at safer speeds and improving medical care for crash victims, and dedicated $14 billion in federal stimulus funds to make those improvements.
The agency projected deaths will decrease in 29 states and increase in 21 others, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s acting administrator, said she was “encouraged” by the declining deaths and cited steps the agency has taken to help produce those results.
“NHTSA is addressing traffic safety in many ways, including new rulemakings for lifesaving vehicle technologies and increased Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding for state highway safety offices,” she said in a news release. “We will continue to work with our safety partners to meet the collective goal of zero fatalities.”
CEO Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association noted that projections are still substantially higher than the first six months of 2019, when 17,025 traffic deaths were reported.
“This recent trend toward fewer deaths on our nation’s roads is welcome news, but these decreases pale in comparison to the troubling and unprecedented rise in dangerous driving and fatalities experienced during the height of the pandemic,” he said in a statement. “We cannot let this gradual progress in roadway safety lessen the urgency of the safety crisis and the need for further action.”
Estimated deaths in Pennsylvania increased 4.5%, from 534 to 558. The death rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven increased from 1.07 to 1.09.