By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. auto safety regulators on Thursday said traffic deaths fell by 3.3% in the first half of 2023 but remain sharply higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 19,515 people died in traffic crashes through June compared to 20,190 deaths in the same period in 2022 but still much higher than the 17,065 killed in the six-month period in 2019.
U.S. traffic deaths jumped 10.5% in 2021 to 42,915, the highest number killed on American roads in a single year since 2005.
Traffic deaths declined even though overall driving increased 2.3% in the first six months of 2023. The traffic fatality rate through June fell to the lowest level since 2019 but is still higher than in any pre-pandemic year since 2008.
As U.S. roads became less crowded during the pandemic, some motorists perceived police as less likely to issue tickets, experts said, likely resulting in riskier behavior on the roads.
Incidents of speeding and traveling under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or without wearing seatbelts rose during the pandemic even as the number of road users declined, NHTSA research showed. Speeding deaths in 2020 jumped 17% – more than twice the overall increase.
Acting NHTSA Administrator Ann Carlson told Reuters in late August interview that some of the boost in road was due to open roads during the pandemic that led to higher speeding and more bad behavior by some drivers but she does think behavior is improving.
“I do think people got in the habit of speeding more,” Carlson said, adding that some drivers “got a sense probably they could get away with it probably.”
She also said that alcohol- and drug-impaired driving remains a significant problem and a stubborn 10% of drivers do not wear seat belts. NHTSA has proposed requiring rear seat belt reminders in future vehicles.
Carlson said Americans tolerate thousands of annual road deaths but not with flights.
“If we have one plane crash, it absolutely changes the way people perceive the risk of flying,” Carlson said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Mark Porter and)
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