For the last three years, traffic fatalities have been trending downward. In fact, 2019 may have been one of the safest years on record with only 36,096 traffic deaths. This works out to about 1.06 deaths per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled. The near record low can be attributed to several factors such as safer vehicles and improved driver aids like automatic emergency breaking being included in more cars.

Unfortunately, that trend towards safer driving looks like it will end with 2020, even though far fewer of us have been on the roads this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In absolute numbers, we’ll probably see fewer total deaths in 2020 vs 2019, but where driving deaths dropped about 2%, we collectively drove a dramatic 16% less in 2020. This means that the roads were actually significantly more dangerous than in previous years.

What’s causing this reversal? The pandemic, most likely, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Our preliminary findings suggest that since mid-March, more drivers had alcohol or drugs in their systems. Other data suggests that many people are driving faster, especially at excessive speeds, and that fewer people involved in crashes appear to have been wearing seatbelts. We have never seen trends like this and we feel an urgency to work with our stakeholders to take action and turn this around as quickly as possible. — James Owens, NHTSA Deputy Administrator

Other reports appear to confirm that when responsible people stay home, it is the reckless that remain on the now far emptier roads. High speeds, impaired driving, and what deceptively seems to be plenty of wide open road to practice both looks like a bad combination.

With the always dangerous New Years Eve / New Years Day weekend coming up quick, it might be worth keeping this worrying trend in mind when considering if you want to be out on the roads as we tick over to 2021.