The Department of Transportation announced it will put together a strategy to combat rising deaths, which are increasing the most in the West and the South.
There were an estimated 20,160 traffic deaths in the first six months of 2021, the highest total for that period since 2006 and 18.4 percent higher than the first half of last year, according to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures.
That is the biggest percentage increase in road deaths in the first half of the year since the U.S. Department of Transportation began recording fatal crash data in 1975, The Associated Press reported.
And it has put the U.S. on a pace for more than 40,000 traffic deaths just this year, with 15 states and Puerto Rico accounting for half of the road fatalities, according to the department.
Public health experts say the sudden rise in deaths on the road is inextricably linked to a pandemic that left millions of Americans feeling trapped and stressed out and looking for ways to escape their isolation.
“While there is no one causative factor, the reckless behavior is likely the confluence of increased drug and alcohol use, lack of safety constraints (like seat belts and texting), and greater opportunities for speeding and reckless driving given still fewer cars on the road, which is linked to feelings of liberation,” said Karl Minges, interim dean at the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences.
The dire new death toll has set off alarm bells in Washington and sparked calls for developing a national strategy in response.
“This is a crisis,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement Thursday. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities are simply as part of everyday life in America.”
“It will take all levels of government, industries, advocates, engineers and communities across the country working together toward the day when family members no longer have to say goodbye to loved ones because of a traffic crash.”
It may also require a crackdown on speeders and people who refuse to wear seat belts.
Behavioral research from March through June found more people were flouting the speed limit and fewer people were using seat belts, according to the traffic safety agency.
That, the agency said, has figured into the trend of more reckless behavior on the roads, which has coincided with the pandemic.
“The report is sobering. It’s also a reminder of what hundreds of millions of people can do every day, right now, to combat this: Slow down, wear seat belts, drive sober, and avoid distractions behind the wheel,” the agency’s deputy administrator, Steven Cliff, said in a statement. “All of us must work together to stop aggressive, dangerous driving and help prevent fatal crashes.”