Less driving but more deaths: Spike in traffic fatalities puzzles lawmakers

Some think more police officers and speed cameras would help.

By: - November 13, 2023 12:00 pm
U.S. traffic fatalities have spiked in recent years, even though Americans are driving fewer miles. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

U.S. traffic fatalities have spiked in recent years, even though Americans are driving fewer miles. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Traffic deaths are lingering near historic highs in most states despite less driving overall, prompting policymakers to consider deploying more police or installing automated monitoring such as speed cameras to curb speeding and reckless driving.

People are driving fewer miles than they were in 2019, but more are dying on roadways. Traffic deaths spiked 18% from 2019 to 2022 — though miles traveled fell 3%, according to a Stateline analysis of federal records from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. North Carolina traffic fatalities rose by 14%.

Experts blame bad driving habits that took hold when roadways suddenly cleared out as the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. At the same time, law enforcement agencies shifted their priorities away from traffic violations and many struggled to hire officers amid heightened scrutiny and criticism, especially after a police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis.

States and cities are trying to reduce the number of deaths caused by risky driving with a mix of more police officers and controversial technologies such as speed and red-light cameras. But many critics see those approaches as potentially troublesome, since traffic tickets are a heavier financial burden on low-income drivers. And others say cameras violate people’s privacy and right to due process.

“Law enforcement has really stepped back from enforcing traffic laws,” said Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “We have to get police back out there and get support for police back. But this has to be done the right way, and it has to be done fairly. And we do want to look at technology — cameras don’t see race, they don’t see gender.”

The nation’s two most populous states, California and Texas, have taken different paths. In October, California approved a speed camera pilot program, to begin next year. Texas hasn’t reconsidered its 2019 ban on local speed and red-light cameras, but state transportation officials have asked local police to step up ticketing. Police in Fort Worth ramped up enforcement in response to residents’ complaints about reckless drivers, according to press reports, writing 12,000 tickets for speeding and careless driving between November 2022 and April 2023.

Traffic deaths were up 18% in California and 24% in Texas between 2019 and 2022, the latest full year available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Washington state, traffic fatalities were up 38% last year compared with 2019, reaching a 30-year high. In response, the state is considering expanding its limited speed camera use. State officials plan a visit to Finland next month to see how that country used automated enforcement to reduce traffic deaths.

“When people see a sign, ‘Speed Camera Ahead,’ they slow down,” Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said in a June interview with the Washington State Standard.

Nationally, most of the change in fatal accidents has been caused by speeding, careless driving and drug or alcohol use, according to federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System data from 2019 to 2021, the latest year available from that source.

Driver deaths increased the most in that time, 21%. Deaths of pedestrians and motorcyclists rose by 18%, and bicyclist deaths by 12%.

Most of the increase from 2019 to 2022 has been in cities, suburbs and small towns, with rural areas less affected, according to separate federal statistics on deaths caused by traffic accidents kept by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our driving behavior didn’t go back to normal. We have to learn to share the roads, and absent that we have to have better engineering and more enforcement out there, unfortunately.

– Jonathan Adkins, CEO, Governors Highway Safety Association

Vermont, which has been struggling to fill police jobs, saw the largest percentage increase of any state from 2019 to 2022, a 64% jump from 47 to 77 deaths. Other states with large percentage increases included Connecticut (54%), New Hampshire (47%), the District of Columbia (39%) and Washington state (38%).

Traffic accidents are the most common cause of death for people under 40 in Arkansas, Nebraska and Texas, according to a September Stateline analysis.

The only states to see a decrease in traffic deaths from 2019 to 2022 were Wyoming (down 9%), Rhode Island (down 5%), North Dakota (down 3%) and Idaho (down 2%). Those four states did see increases in the first six months of 2023, however, compared with 2022.

About half of Wyoming’s fatal crashes in 2022 involved speeding or failure to wear seat belts, according to a state report.

Legislative efforts

In California, speed camera legislation has been stymied in the past by disagreements over fines and impacts on residents with low incomes. The compromise bill as enacted in October will allow community service in lieu of fines for low-income drivers who are ticketed in the pilot program, and limit placement of cameras to streets with speeding issues in a handful of cities.

Adkins, the CEO of the governors’ safety group, said other states should be similarly cautious.

“You have to be really careful with these camera programs. We don’t want cameras to be a ‘gotcha,’” Adkins said. “They should only be in areas that have a problem.”

Another state considering more speed cameras is Pennsylvania, where a pilot program put speed cameras on one street in Philadelphia and in work zones statewide. A bill to make the program permanent and expand it within Philadelphia passed the state House and is now pending in a state Senate committee. Pennsylvania’s traffic fatalities increased 12% from 2019 to 2022, according to the Stateline analysis.

In Philadelphia, speed cameras cut fatal accidents in half, saving an estimated 36 lives, and reduced speeding by 95% after they were introduced in 2020 on the 14-mile stretch of Roosevelt Boulevard, a main artery, according to city records obtained by Stateline. Cameras detected 8,305 speeders in February 2023 compared with 224,000 when they were first installed in June 2020.

States that have banned cameras for speeding and/or red-light violations often cite driver complaints about high fines and say it's unfair for drivers to have to face accusations from machines instead of police officers. The National Motorists Association, a driver advocacy group, opposes red-light and speed cameras, saying they infringe upon due process rights.

Some Texas lawmakers called cameras a violation of constitutional principles of presumption of innocence and the right to confront one’s accuser as they passed a bipartisan 2019 measure that banned photographic enforcement. Other states with laws banning traffic cameras include Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group.

The Missouri Supreme Court struck down St. Louis' red-light cameras in 2015, saying they were unconstitutional because cameras couldn't document who was driving the car. However, in the face of increased fatalities, the city announced in September it is considering a new plan for speed and red-light cameras that record drivers’ faces as well as license plates.

In Iowa, where 19 cities and towns use cameras for speed or red-light enforcement, Republican state Sen. Mike Klimesh said he plans to reintroduce a bill next year limiting fines and requiring revenue-sharing with the state to benefit a retirement fund for volunteer workers like firefighters. Cities should have to prove that the cameras are placed in areas where they improve safety, Klimesh said.

“This would require the cities to provide some data to prove it makes sense to put the camera at that specific location, that it’s not just a gotcha or a revenue generator,” Klimesh said. “We’re trying to make sure they’re looking first and foremost at law enforcement presence, officers in vehicles,” he added. Klimesh sponsored a similar bill this year that did not progress to a floor vote.

Risky behavior

As with Washington officials’ planned visit to Finland, states are increasingly finding inspiration in Europe’s mostly automated traffic control strategies that are cutting fatalities, said Andi Hamre, director of policy and research at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit traffic policy think tank. That interest could help revive “Vision Zero” initiatives, meant to eradicate traffic deaths entirely, that have recently seen numbers headed the wrong way.

“We’re leaving a lot on the table as far as traffic safety goes, compared to some places in Spain, France and Scandinavia. Vision Zero works. What doesn’t work is ‘Vision Zero Lite,’ which is what we’ve been seeing,” Hamre said. States such as Texas that have banned red-light and speed cameras “have just taken that tool away from localities altogether,” Hamre said.

Along with more speeding and careless driving, there has been a puzzling increase in the number of people killed in crashes who were not wearing seat belts. The number of drivers and passengers killed in crashes who were unbelted rose 24% between 2019 and 2021, according to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The increases were highest for 25- to 34-year-olds, up 51%.

“It seems like there was something going on with people that was leading to this riskier behavior, and we really don’t know what was causing it,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“Even when people weren’t driving that much, the people who were driving were doing it in a more risky way,” Cicchino said.

Adkins said the decline in seat belt use is “kind of nuts” but that other factors are more understandable, considering the early pandemic days let some people feel free to drive poorly.

“People started driving crazy because they could,” Adkins said. “They were so used to these roads being full. … And then our driving behavior didn’t go back to normal. We have to learn to share the roads, and absent that we have to have better engineering and more enforcement out there, unfortunately.”

This report was first published by Stateline. 

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. Like NC Newsline, Stateline is an editorially independent part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers.

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