Traffic deaths are skyrocketing: How municipalities can take action to protect their communities

In the first half of 2021, the U.S. experienced its largest six month increase in traffic crash deaths ever — with more than 20,000 American lives lost. 

Ryan Giunta

Former Transform Transportation, Associate, PIRG

The COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating impact has been on the United States news for nearly two years now. Unfortunately, those devastating impacts go beyond sickness and death directly caused by the virus. Since the pandemic started, traffic deaths have increased significantly. In the first half of 2021, the U.S. experienced its largest six month increase in traffic crash deaths ever —with more than 20,000 American lives lost. 

The increase in traffic deaths in the first half of 2021 was not an anomaly. In 2020, the rate of traffic fatalities skyrocketed, marking the highest year-over-year spike in 96 years. This phenomenon is particularly alarming when considering that since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S., the number of cars on the road has decreased significantly. Even with significantly fewer drivers on the roads, we are seeing higher rates of traffic deaths than ever before.

When we think of traffic fatalities, we often imagine two vehicles crashing into each other. While car-on-car collisions often cost lives, cars and trucks can also kill pedestrians and bicyclists. Over the last decade, crashes killing pedestrians have increased by 46%, making it the fastest growing category of roadway fatality. The increase in traffic fatalities not only reflects higher risks to drivers, but also for pedestrians. 

To save lives and protect the public, we need to understand why traffic fatalities are rising so sharply. Many experts believe that several factors are at play. Some experts have suggested that with fewer cars on the road, drivers felt that they could drive more aggressively, at higher speeds and make more reckless decisions. Added speed not only gives drivers less time to react to prevent a crash, but also greatly increases the risk of death when a crash does occur. 

Despite all of the vehicle safety advancements over the past few decades, it seems that our transportation system’s safety as a whole has taken a step backwards. By reducing traffic speed, using calming infrastructure and educating drivers, we could take steps to improve roadway safety and save lives. 

Traffic calming infrastructure physical objects and barriers  to lower vehicle speeds. The idea is to lower risks facing drivers, bikers and pedestrians. This infrastructure includes things like speed bumps, cones, bollards or even widened sidewalks. Creating infrastructure meant to narrow roadways can reduce traffic speeds when drivers perceive that they have less room to navigate. This type of infrastructure can also act as a physical barrier between the road and pedestrians on the sidewalk, leaving them with an added layer of protection.To best protect our transportation system users, it makes sense to pair traffic calming infrastructure with educational materials that remind drivers of the risks of reckless driving.. 

This past January, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) Report which identified the troubling patterns in traffic fatalities in recent years and raised strategies aimed at addressing this problem. The report identified traffic calming measures and educational programs as key features of their crash prevention guide. In general, the crash prevention strategies included in the report revolve around reducing traffic speeds, prompting drivers to make safer decisions on the road and creating safer cars and roadways. The report set specific goals for government agencies to pursue to create a safer driving environment. 

Municipalities need to take proactive action to protect local drivers and pedestrians. They should start by building traffic calming infrastructure that can reduce drivers speeds.

Municipalities should create their own “complete streets” plans to calm traffic and create a safer system for pedestrians. Not only can these plans help to reduce traffic fatalities but they can also actively encourage walking and biking as alternative forms of transportation. If complete streets policies are enacted, community members are more likely to feel safe and enjoy their time walking and biking. This in turn will make it more likely for people to use active mobility options to get around . With more people walking and biking,there will be less vehicles on the road thereby limiting the amount of localized air pollution and improving public health . 

The work that the U.S. Department of Transportation is doing to reduce traffic fatalities is incredibly important. At the same time, municipalities shouldn’t become complacent. Creating their own complete streets policies is the best way for cities and towns to help reduce traffic fatalities and further enable active mobility options within their communities. 


Image: Vladislav Vasnetsov,


Ryan Giunta

Former Transform Transportation, Associate, PIRG