Gridlock Guy: 2021 traffic fatality stats solemn signal for summer driving season

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I-20 reopens as police investigate fiery, double fatal crash Sunday

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This tune will sound familiar, but it unfortunately doesn’t stick in many drivers’ heads like their favorite songs do. The latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) analysis of 2021 traffic numbers should bring drivers to observe at least a moment of silent reflection, but hopefully also to appraise their own driving habits.

While there was technically a 1% decrease in the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (1.34 in 2020 to 1.33 in 2021), the amount of people killed on U.S. roads increased in many categories, as far more people drove last year compared to the pandemic’s first year.

NHTSA is still gathering final stats from last year, but it has projected a 10.5% increase in 2021 road deaths to 25,411, the highest total since 2005. Fatalities rose 15% on rural interstates, 15% on urban arteries, and even more starkly, by 20% on urban collector/local roads — the medium sized roads between residential streets and bigger arteries. Fatalities also rose by more than 10% in every age group above 25 years.

There were 16% more multi-vehicle fatal wreck, 11% more fatalities during daytime driving and the weekend, and 10% more deaths while driving out of state.

Pedestrian fatalities rose at a sharp rate, 13%, while cycling and motorcycling deaths rose by 5% and 9% respectively. Erratic driving, especially speeding, has increased in the last two years, as has the number of people driving bigger vehicles. So seeing these increases in categories with the most vulnerable commuters is sadly predictable.

Possibly the most surprising NHTSA fatality stat is the increase in fatalities in 2021 among people driving cars 10 years old or newer, which were up 10%. Newer cars, with their various driving aids, hands-free technology and improved crash technology, are the safest in history, yet those features almost make driving too easy. And drivers are squandering away those advancements with their complacent behavior.

Memorial Day begins what AAA calls the “100 Deadliest Days for Teen Drivers.” The stretch through the summer to Labor Day is highlighted by young drivers being out of school with far more time on their hands, but also by adults taking vacations and large numbers of parties with alcohol. Throw in Georgia’s trademark summer pop-up storms and more unpredictable traffic patterns, and the recipe is set for an extremely dangerous season.

NHTSA is implementing a National Roadway Safety Strategy, which will disperse $6 billion to local and state governments over five years to help reduce fatalities. This is part of the large infrastructure law that the Biden Administration passed last year, which goes even further towards fixing bridges and improving dangerous roads and intersections.

These fixes are needed, but they will come in drips over years. The rising flood of bad driving needs damming immediately.

No amount of money can fix stupidity behind the wheel. We each play a small role in turning this ugly tide. Traffic fatalities had trended downward in the years before the pandemic. We were doing something right before. But then speeds increased on empty roads and that habit didn’t seem to switch back when heavy traffic volume returned.

Distracted driving in Georgia in 2022 seems worse than before the Hands-Free Georgia Act went into effect in mid-2019. There is no doubt that distracted driving plays a major role in this disturbing fatality increase.

Just like big spending alone can’t buy back lives, neither can laws. For both to work — for people to effectively govern — people have to properly behave. That responsibility resides with all of us.

Parents, set the tone with your children. When they see texting, speeding and aggression, that becomes normalized. Teen drivers, when your friends see you fail to stop at stop signs or when pedestrians are in crosswalks, or when they see you drag race someone, that becomes acceptable.

Here is a factor we don’t consider enough: When other drivers see us cut people off, drive in emergency lanes or drive way above the speed limit on a two-lane road, they regress to that nasty mean. Driving selfishly has become more normal in the last couple of years. It’s just human nature.

But we can overcome our wiring with some conscientious steps. Driving two-ton-missiles around other two-ton-missiles filled with fragile sacks of blood and cells is a big deal and can turn deadly quickly. All the things we should and shouldn’t do while driving could be distilled into this reminder: I am driving a car. That is my sole responsibility right now.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.