Traffic fatalities increased more than 10% in 2021, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The increase came along with a rise in out-of-state travel and greater miles traveled in 2021, rebounding after stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Most of the fatalities occurred on multilane highways and freeways.
Fatality rates, calculated by the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled, have steadily decreased over time. Much of that decline can be attributed to advances in car safety features such as airbags and anti-lock brakes. Laws requiring seat belt usage also helped reduce traffic fatalities. Since 1990, traffic fatality rates have stayed under two deaths per 100 million miles traveled.
The most dangerous roadways are urban arterial roads, which include multilane highways, freeways, and other roads that connect the urban interstate system. Urban arterial roads also have the highest traffic volumes of any road type.
Rural arterial and rural local roads have the next highest fatality count despite smaller volumes of traffic than urban roads. The Interstate Highway System had the lowest number of fatalities, despite having the highest average speed limits. This is true regardless of whether the interstate roadway is in an urban or rural area.
Crashes occurring during the daytime and nighttime increased at similar rates, up 11% and 12% respectively in 2021. Weekends and weekdays also had similar increases in crashes, up 11% and 10%.
August, September, and October had the highest fatalities rates in 2021. Historically, traffic fatality rates are highest in summer and fall months.
Are alcohol-related traffic fatalities increasing?
Traffic fatalities involving alcohol have steadily decreased since 1990. Alcohol-related crashes were once about half of all traffic fatalities but have decreased to about 30% to 40% in the last two decades.
Alcohol-related fatalities increased by about 10% in 2020. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics has not released complete alcohol-related incident data for 2021, but early estimates show that fatalities are still higher compared with pre-pandemic numbers.