U.S. traffic deaths in 2021 jump to highest number since 2005

Traffic is pictured at twilight along 42nd St. in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

WASHINGTON, May 17 (Reuters) - U.S. traffic deaths jumped 10.5% in 2021 to 42,915, regulators said on Tuesday in a preliminary estimate, marking the highest number killed on American roads in a single-year since 2005.

The yearly increase is the highest reported since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began using its current traffic fatality tracking system in 1975.

The number of pedestrians killed jumped 13% to 7,342, hitting the highest number since 1981. The number of people on bicycles killed rose 5% to 985, the highest number since at least 1975.

"We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” said U.S. Transportation (USDOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said NHTSA must set new auto safety rules, calling for minimum performance standards for advanced driver assistance systems and requirements for adaptive beam headlights, improved hood and bumper standards and commercial motor vehicle safety upgrades.

NHTSA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since early 2017.

The chairs of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee and subcommittee overseeing highways said they plan to hold a hearing on efforts in Congress to make roads safer. "The staggering number of deaths occurring on our nation’s roadways is an ongoing crisis that demands urgent attention,” said Peter DeFazio and Eleanor Holmes Norton a joint statement.

In January, USDOT released a strategy designed to cut the soaring number of traffic deaths on American roads.

Traffic deaths surged after pandemic lockdowns ended in 2020 as more drivers engaged in unsafe behavior.

"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," the Governors Highway Safety Association said in a statement.

Traffic deaths in 2020 rose 6.8%. They are now up 18% over pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

NHTSA said the fatality rate in 2021 fell slightly to 1.33 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, down from 1.34 in 2020, which was the highest rate since 2007.

One factor for the big jump in 2020 was that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in riskier behavior, NHTSA said.

As U.S. roads became less crowded, some motorists perceived police were less likely to issue tickets because of COVID-19, experts say.

NHTSA research findings from 2020 indicating incidents of speeding and traveling without a seatbelt were higher than before the pandemic. In 2020, the number of crashes fell 22% to 5.25 million and those injured fell 17% to 2.28 million even as deaths rose.

Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Bill Berkrot

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