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How has COVID-19 affected traffic accident fatality rates?

May 20th 2021

How has COVID-19 affected traffic accident fatality rates?
The Impact of reduced Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and Increased Speed

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of day-to-day life around the world, including driving. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates that, while the total number of vehicles on roads has decreased, the number of fatal traffic accidents has increased[1].

Bob Pishue from Inrix Research conducted a study regarding the pandemic’s effect on traffic patterns and noted the following:

  • While the total number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) dropped significantly in the spring of 2020, the speed of the average vehicle increased.[2] This change is likely explained by a lower VMT often resulting in less traffic congestion, allowing an average vehicle’s speed to increase[2].
  • In some metropolitan areas, such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, vehicle speeds on highways and interstates increased by more than 60% between April and July of 2020[2].
  • Reduced VMT rates often result in fewer traffic collisions overall, but those collisions that do occur are typically more severe[2].
  • The average VMT rate increased in the second part of 2020. However, out of the top 100 US metropolitan areas, just 45 have met their pre-COVID level of VMT[2].
  • Pishue concluded that “COVID-19 has had a large effect in several transportation-related areas, accelerating certain trends, curtailing others, and creating new challenges.”[2]

Furthermore, preliminary NHTSA crash statistics for 2020 indicate the following:

  • The overall number of fatalities in the first half of 2020 was lower compared to the same time period in 2019: 16,650 deaths in 2020 vs 16,988 in 2019[3].
  • The fatality rate increased from 1.06 fatalities per 100 VMT during the first half of 2019 to 1.25 fatalities per 100 VMT during the first half of 2020.[3] The majority of the increase occurred during the time period that stay-at-home orders were imposed (March to June 2020).[3]
  • The VMT rate remained low in the third quarter of 2020, compared to the third quarter of 2019, despite the lifting of stay-at-home orders.[1]

Reducing the Impact

COVID-19 lockdown restrictions may be around for the remainder of 2021 or even longer. Therefore, it is necessary to develop strategies to reduce the amount of serious and fatal traffic accidents that may result from the second order effects of these restrictions. At this stage, it is difficult to know which strategies would be the most effective. It would be beneficial to conduct further research into common traffic behaviours in order to implement programs that would help reduce traffic accident fatality rates during COVID-19 lockdowns.[4]

LISKE and Accident Reconstruction

At LISKE, we take a high-level approach to each assignment, ensuring that no element of causation is overlooked, and no stone is left unturned. LISKE Transportation reconstruction experts will complete a thorough forensic investigation of the available records and physical evidence to reconstruct your accident. This includes considering what the impact speed may have had on the traffic accident.


[1] Office of Behavioral Safety Research. (2021, January). Update to special reports on traffic safety During the COVID-19 public health emergency: Third quarter data. (Report No. DOT HS 813 069). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/documents/traffic_safety_during_covid19_01062021_0.pdf

[2] Pishue, B. (2020, December). COVID-19 effect on collisions on interstates and highways in the US. INRIX Research. Retrieved from: https://media.bizj.us/view/img/11938204/inrixriskiestroadsus.pdf

[3] National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2020, October). Early estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities for the first half (Jan–Jun) of 2020 (Crash•Stats Brief Statistical Summary. Report No. DOT HS 813 004). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813004

[4] Qureshi, A. I., Huang, W., Khan, S., Lobanova, I., Siddiq, F., Gomez, C. R., & Suri, M. (2020). Mandated societal lockdown and road traffic accidents. Accident; analysis and prevention, 146, 105747. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7475733/