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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released its early estimate for motor vehicle traffic fatalities for the first half (January – June) of 2021.

The bad news is that so far, it looks like there has been an 18.4 percent increase in the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes compared to last year.

NHTSA Reports on Fatalities for First Half of 2021

In total, an estimated 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes during the first half of 2021. The NHTSA states that this is an 18.4 percent increase compared to the 17,020 fatalities that were projected in the first half of 2020.

The NHTSA added that this also represents the “highest number of fatalities during the first half of the year since 2006” and the “highest half-year percentage increase in the history of data recorded by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).”

Also, the projected 11,225 fatalities during the second quarter of 2021 represent the highest Q2 fatalities since 1990 and the highest quarterly percentage change (+23.1 percent) in FARS data recorded history.

NHTSA Notes More Vehicles on the Road

Why did fatalities increase so much? The NHTSA points out that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the first half of 2021 increased by about 173.1 billion miles, or about a 13 percent increase as compared to the first half of 2020. So that shows that more people were on the road during the first half of the year.

Still, that doesn’t explain everything. The NHTSA found that the fatality rates per 100 million VMT increased to 1.34 fatalities, up from the projected rate of 1.28 fatalities in the first half of 2020.

The NHTSA also notes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were “marked increases in fatalities,” and that this trend has continued into the first half of 2021. The increasing trend in the fatality rate per 100 million VMT continued into the first quarter of 2021 but did decrease in the second quarter of 2021 compared to 2020.

The NHTSA will continue to gather data through the end of the year and will release the annual report files for 2020 and 2021 in the late fall of 2021 and 2022.

More Drivers Speeding, Using Drugs

In addition to the fatality data, the NHTSA also released the behavioral research findings from March 2020 through June 2021. The agency found that after the declaration of the public health emergency in March 2020, “driving patterns and behaviors in the United States changed significantly.” Some drivers engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, failure to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Traffic data showed average speeds increased during the last three quarters of 2020, and extreme speeds—such as those 20 miles per hour or higher than the posted speed limit—became more common.

In addition, almost two-thirds of the seriously or fatally injured drivers in a study by the Office of Behavioral Safety Research tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids, between mid-March and mid-July 2020. Drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March 2020, compared to the previous six months, while marijuana prevalence increased by about 50 percent.

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