Death Toll on US Roads Rose to
Almost 43,000 in 2021

Carolyn Crist

May 18, 2022

Nearly 43,000 people were killed on roads across the U.S. last year, marking the highest number in more than a decade.

The death toll jumped 10.5% from 2020 as Americans returned to driving after COVID-19 pandemic quarantine and isolation, according to The Associated Press. The increase represents the largest percentage jump in numbers since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting data on road deaths in 1975.

Before 2020, the number of deaths had dropped for 3 years in a row and had been below 40,000 since 2008. The previous high — 43,500 deaths — was recorded in 2005.

"This crisis on our roads is urgent and preventable," Steven Cliff, PhD, deputy administrator for the NHTSA, said in a statement.

"We will redouble our safety efforts, and we need everyone — state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers — to join us," he said. "All of our lives depend on it."

In early figures released Tuesday, about 42,915 people died in traffic crashes last year, up from 38,824 in 2020. Final numbers will be released in the fall, the AP reported.

About 118 people died in U.S. traffic crashes each day in 2021, the NHTSA reported. Compared to 2020, 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico has increases in traffic deaths last year. The highest increases happened in Texas, California, and Florida.

On the other hand, Rhode Island's numbers remained about the same, and decreases were recorded in Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Maine.

Deaths increased in almost all types of crashes, the NHTSA reported. Crashes that involved out-of-state travel jumped 15%, as compared with 2020, often happening on rural interstate roads or access roads off city highways. Deaths in urban areas, as well as in multi-vehicle crashes, each rose 16%. Pedestrian deaths increased 13%.

Based on age, deaths increased 14% among drivers 65 and older, which reversed a declining trend from 2020. Deaths also jumped 15% for ages 35 to 44. Kids under age 16 had a 6% increase in traffic deaths.

The AP reported that deaths involving at least one big truck increased 13%. Motorcycle deaths rose 9%, and bicycle deaths rose 5%.

Americans drove about 325 billion more miles last year, marking an 11.2% increase from 2020, the NHTSA reported. That partly contributed to the increase in deaths.

At the same time, deaths that involved speeding drivers and deaths in alcohol-related crashes each increased 5%.

Risky driving behaviors led to more deaths in 2021, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, including less frequent use of seat belts, speeding, driving while impaired by alcohol and drugs, distracted driving, and "roads designed for speed instead of safety."

The combination "has wiped out a decade and a half of progress in reducing traffic crashes, injuries and deaths," Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations for the association, said in a statement.

"This grim milestone confirms we are moving backwards when it comes to safety on our roads," he said. "We can never accept these deaths as simply the price of mobility and convenience; most roadway deaths are preventable."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a national strategy to address the increase in deaths, the AP reported. During the next 2 years, the department is expected to provide federal guidance and grants under the Biden administration's infrastructure law to encourage states and local governments to lower speed limits, embrace safer road design, and use speed cameras.

On Tuesday, the department said it had opened the first round of applications for the infrastructure program, which will spend up to $6 billion over 5 years on local efforts to curb crashes and road deaths.

The NHTSA also has pending regulations to require electronic automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems on all new light vehicles, the AP reported, as well as automatic emergency braking on heavy trucks.

"Our nation has taken a dangerous and deadly step backwards in traffic safety and impaired driving," Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said in a statement.

"More families and more communities are feeling the crushing magnitude of this crisis on our roads," she said.


The Associated Press: "Nearly 43,000 people died on US roads last year, agency says."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "Newly Released Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities Reached a 16-Year High in 2021."

Governors Highway Safety Association: "U.S. Traffic Deaths Reach 16-Year High."

U.S. Department of Transportation: "National Roadway Safety Strategy."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving: "New Estimates of Lives Taken in 2021 Traffic Crashes Amount to National Emergency


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.