A Pandemic of Traffic Deaths

In the dry, passionless prose of most U.S. government agencies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association reported in April 2022, “A statistical projection of traffic fatalities for 2021 shows that an estimated 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes nationwide.”Pixabay -- https://pixabay.com/photos/drive-diversion-smartphone-5251291/

Few readers, however, could remain unmoved by then reading, “This … represents the highest number of fatalities since 2005 and the highest annual percentage increase in the recorded history of data in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.”

Virginia drivers will also find it well worth the minute or so it takes to read this Axios summary of the NHTSA study. The news that deaths in Virginia from car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle and pedestrian crashes jumped nearly 14 percent from 2020 to 2021 is hard to ignore.


The Axios overview quotes a Governors Highway Safety Association official observing, “An increase in dangerous driving—speeding, distracted driving, drug- and alcohol-impaired driving, not buckling up—during the pandemic, combined with roads designed for speed instead of safety, has wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths.”

For whatever reason, personal injuries and deaths spiked as the COVID-19 pandemic persisted.

Heartbreaking, but Unsurprising

My Virginia personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I knew what the latest NHTSA numbers on fatal crashes would show. Even though many lawsuits against negligent drivers and recalcitrant insurance companies stalled after April 2020, our caseloads multiplied month after month for the past two years. Backlogs due to court delays are only now starting to clear.

Sharp reductions in driving from mid-2020 to mid-2021 did not translate into meaningfully lower crash, injury and death rates. If anything, the people who did take to the roads during the height of the pandemic behaved, in some ways, more negligently and recklessly. For instance, from 2019 to 2020, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles documented a 6.7 percent increase in crashes involving vehicle occupants who were not using seat belts. Comparing the same years, the Virginia DMV noted a 2.4 percent increase in crashes due to distracted driving.

A Promising Investment in Safety

Federal officials are taking action. In announcing the opening of applications for a total of $1 billion in initial grants to localities to upgrade road designs, signage and signals, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “We face a national crisis of fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways, and these tragedies are preventable—so as a nation we must work urgently and collaboratively to save lives. The funds we are making available today from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help communities large and small take action to protect all Americans on our roads.”

In all, $5 billion will be made available through the Safe Streets and Roads for All initiative. My colleagues and I fully support this effort, and we encourage cities and counties throughout Virginia to obtain their share of road improvement funds.

Future upgrades will not prevent past injuries or bring back the lives of loved ones already killed in avoidable crashes, however. And, of course, settling lawsuits and winning jury trial awards represent less-than-ideal recompense for crash victims and grieving family members in Virginia. Still, our law firm will continue working on behalf of those harmed by negligent and reckless drivers.