Despite less driving during the 2020 pandemic, road deaths were highest in 13 years

Even though Americans drove less in 2020 due to the pandemic, the first estimates of accident fatalities from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released Thursday reveal the highest expected number of fatalities since 2007.

According to the NHSTA, an estimated 38,680 people died in traffic crashes last year, which is an increase of about 7.2% from the 36,096 deaths reported in 2019.

Preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that vehicle kilometers traveled (VMT) in 2020 decreased by about 430.2 billion kilometers, a decrease of 13.2%.

The death rate for 2020 was 1.37 deaths per 100 million VMT, compared to 1.11 deaths per 100 million VMT in 2019.

NHTSA analysis shows that the main behaviors behind this increase are: impaired driving, speeding and not wearing a seat belt.

While occupants of passenger vehicles recorded the highest number of fatalities, accounting for 23,395 of 38,680 (up 5%), motorcyclists saw the largest increase in accident fatalities, from 9% at 5,015.

Fatalities among cyclists have also increased, rising 5% to 846, while pedestrian fatalities were estimated at roughly the same levels in 2020 and 2019.

The NHSTA said crashes involving a large truck were among the few areas where the agency predicts a drop in fatalities in 2020, but the drop was only 2%. The number of accident victims among people aged 65 has fallen by around 9%.

The collision factors reviewed by NHTSA that showed the largest increases in 2020 over 2019 included:

  • Occupant ejection, up 20%.
  • Unattached occupants of passenger vehicles, up 15%.
  • Accidents on urban freeways, up 15%
  • Accidents on local / urban collector roads, up 12%;
  • Speed-related accidents, up 11%

Driving at night led to an 11% increase in accident deaths, and fatalities from weekend crashes increased by 9%.

Demographically, black non-Hispanic drivers were the hardest hit, with a 23% increase in accident deaths.

Automobile insurers

The NHTSA data is consistent with reports from auto insurers who cited a reduction in the number of claims in 2020 but an increase in the severity of death claims. Many insurers have refunded premiums and lowered rates to reflect the reduction in claims. Still, many personal auto insurers reported strong profits in 2020.

Fitch Rating indicated that the premiums refunded and remitted, while substantial, “did not fully offset the cost loss benefits of lower frequency.”

Auto claims statistics from Allstate, Progressive and GEICO show the frequency has dropped from 27% to 30% in 2020 for physical damage claims and from 25% to 30% for personal injury. On the other hand, in 2019, the frequency drops for these coverages were of the order of 0 to 4%.

Still, Fitch noted, the frequency drops were partly offset by increases in claim severity last year: 8-10% for physical damage and 12-13% for bodily injury. Crashes occurring at higher speeds in less congested traffic conditions and distracted driving are thought to contribute to severity trends.

Fitch does not view auto insurers’ 2020 earnings as sustainable.

“Further pricing pressure is likely due to recent operational success and as companies strive to retain policyholders, which will help return to pre-pandemic performance levels in 2021,” Fitch predicts.

Mark Sektnan, vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said insurers “took immediate action” when driving was reduced in 2020, and auto insurers voluntarily provided more than $ 14 billion reimbursements and credits to policyholders for reduced driving during the pandemic.

Some argue that insurers should have done more to account for the decline in driving and accidents.

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said his state’s insurers continued to “overcharge drivers” despite a reduced risk of accidents during the pandemic.

Class actions have been filed in Nevada against 10 major auto insurance companies, claiming the companies were charging excessive insurance premiums during the pandemic.

The industry has fended off criticism.

“The increase in the number of road fatalities in 2020 suggests that despite improvements in automotive technologies and motor vehicle safety laws, driver behavior is deteriorating at a rapid rate,” said Stef Zielezienski, vice president Executive and General Counsel of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “Trends in reckless driving could prove to be even more fatal as traffic begins to return to pre-pandemic levels. These dangerous trends, combined with rising costs of litigation, medical care and auto repairs, have an impact on the market. ”

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