The increase of 10.5 percent above 2020 figures was the greatest since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting mortality data in 1975.
America’s roads, according to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, are in a crisis. State and local governments, drivers, and safety advocates were all invited to participate by the safety administration.
“Our nation has taken a dangerous and deadly step backwards in traffic safety and impaired driving,” said MADD National President Alex Otte, who urged strong public-private efforts akin to the seat belt and air bag public safety campaigns of the 1990s to stem reckless driving. “More families and more communities are feeling the crushing magnitude of this crisis on our roads.”
Preliminary figures released Tuesday by the agency show that 42,915 people died in traffic crashes last year, up from 38,824 in 2020. Final figures will be released in the fall.
Forty-four states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had increases in traffic deaths in 2021 compared to the previous year, led by Texas, California and Florida. Posting declines were Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland and Maine. Rhode Island’s figures were unchanged.
Americans drove about 325 billion more miles last year, 11.2% higher than in 2020, which contributed to the increase.
Nearly 118 people died in U.S. traffic crashes every day last year, according to the agency’s figures. The Governors Highway Safety Association, a group of state traffic safety officials, blamed the increase on dangerous behavior such as speeding, driving while impaired by alcohol and drugs, and distracted driving, as well as “roads designed for speed instead of safety.”
The combination, the group said, “has wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths.”
Deaths last year increased in almost all types of crashes, NHTSA reported. Crashes occurring during out of state travel jumped 15%, compared to 2020, many of them on rural interstate roads or access roads off city highways. Fatalities in urban areas and deaths in multi-vehicle crashes each rose 16%. Pedestrian deaths were up 13%, while fatalities among drivers 65 and older rose 14%.
Fatalities involving at least one big truck were up 13%, while motorcycle deaths were up 9% and deaths of bicyclists rose 5%. Fatalities involving speeding drivers and deaths in alcohol-related crashes each were up 5%.
Government estimates show the rate of road deaths declined slightly from 2020. Last year there were 1.33 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 1.34 in 2020. The fatality rate rose in the first quarter of last year, but declined the rest of the year, NHTSA said.
Before 2020, the number of fatalities had fallen for three straight years.
Deputy NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff, the Biden administration’s nominee to run the agency, said the roadway crisis is urgent and preventable.
Buttigieg pointed to a national strategy unveiled earlier this year aimed at reversing the trend. The strategy also urges the use of speed cameras, which the department says could provide more equitable enforcement than police traffic stops.
In Tuesday’s statement, the department said it opened up its first round of applications for the program, which will spend up to $6 billion over five years on local efforts to cut crashes and deaths.
Automatic emergency braking can slow or stop a vehicle if there’s an object in its path.
The agency also is requiring automakers to install systems that alert rear-seat passengers if their safety belts aren’t buckled.