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Why Were Traffic Fatalities So High in 2020?

April 29, 2021
Car accidents Colorado Safe Driving

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I made some inaccurate assumptions in 2020 when we were all sent into lockdown for the pandemic. Namely: I assumed that serious car accidents would plummet, a statistic I eagerly sought in the news, hoping we would see fewer fatal car crashes. (I may be a Denver personal injury attorney, but I’m a husband and father first and I never want to see people hurt in a car crash.)

Sadly, now that 2020 statistics are emerging, it turns out that the opposite is true: Fatal car crashes spiked in 2020! How can this be, when fewer people were on the roads?

A recent study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that deaths in the first nine months of 2020 increased by 5% over 2019. Another study by the National Safety Council (NSC) found that fatal car accidents increased by 8%. Considered another way: fatal car crashes per mile driven jumped by 24% — the biggest increase since 1924!

Why were car crashes so much more deadly in 2020? It’s starting to look like the people who were on the road were being very reckless.

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I remember one day in April 2020, when I had to drive to my Frisco, CO personal injury office, and the roads were wide open. It was truly a remarkable sight, driving on I-70 during an hour that would normally find the highway gridlocked, and instead, I was one of only a few cars on the road.

Then, out of nowhere, a car came speeding past me going easily 100 miles per hour, flying up Floyd Hill. It shook me up. I realized that the driver was speeding on I-70 simply because he could. He had no regard for his own safety… nor mine. To him, a wide-open I-70 meant, “Drive as fast as you can.”

In that moment, I recognized that we were going to see more fatal accidents in Colorado. And it completely deflated me.

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Sure enough: The Colorado Department of Transportation reported that Colorado fatal crashes increased in 2020 to 566. In 2019, there were 545 fatal accidents in Colorado. That represents an increase of nearly 8% in Colorado traffic fatalities. Heartbreaking.

California saw a similar increase and, because that state publishes very detailed data, we can learn a lot about the spike in fatal car crashes in 2020.

Fatal car crashes spiked in 2020 because of the following reckless behaviors:

  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Failing to stop at a signal
  • Not wearing a seatbelt
  • Speeding

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In April 2020, one of my favorite Denver reporters, Michael Roberts with Westword, reported a story headlined, “Colorado Traffic Down but Major Speeding Tickets Up.” He wrote:

Colorado’s soon-to-expire stay-at-home order over COVID-19 has resulted in much lower traffic on the state’s highways, and volume is likely to remain lighter than usual during the first phases of the reopening process set to begin on April 27.

Many drivers have interpreted this scenario as a license to speed, particularly since many law enforcement agencies have been working to reduce face-to-face contacts. But the Colorado State Patrol is still citing those who are really pushing the limits — and there are a lot of them.

“The short version is: Yes, we have seen too many drivers that feel a more open road is an invitation to violate speed and other laws,” confirms Trooper Josh Lewis, a CSP spokesperson, via email. “But despite the stay-at-home order and other aspects that have resulted in less vehicles on the roadways, CSP has issued more citations for 20+ MPH over the speed limit, and 40+ MPH over the speed limit, than we did for the same time period last year (Jan-Feb-March).”

Michael’s reporting matches the data we report graphically in the Denver Accident Map. While 2020 wasn’t the worst year on record for traffic fatalities, it certainly represented a significant jump over recent years.

Why do high speeds increase the risk of car accident fatalities? Simply put, the faster you go, the harder the impact. Also, depending on your vehicle and your age, the higher your speed, the higher your chance for serious internal organ injuries and brain injuries. The force of your impact is greater the faster you’re traveling, and our bodies can only sustain so much.

My hope is that, as 2021 allows us to return to a sense of normalcy, people will return to the speed limit. It’s too bad that it takes traffic congestion to keep our speeds low, but I’d rather see more traffic than more fatalities.

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