Among the myriad ways 2020 stood out as an exceptionally stressful year: It was an unusually deadly one on America's roads.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the coronavirus, the pandemic times will be remembered for lockdowns and work from home. The total number of miles driven, according to NHTSA, dropped 13 percent last year. And yet, the number of people who died in traffic accidents jumped 7.2 percent to 38,680. It's the highest death toll since 2007 and the fatality rate — deaths per mile driven — was the worst since 2006.
It's worth noting that the U.S. automotive fleet is undeniably better engineered and technologically safer than it was in those days.
This industry has invested tens — if not hundreds — of billions of dollars over the past decades making automobiles safer, and it continues to do so with the broadening use of advanced driver-assistance systems. Those investments — from seat belts to airbags to automated braking and crash avoidance systems — had showed results over the long term, driving down both the number and severity of traffic crashes.
NHTSA said the main behaviors behind the increase included impaired driving and excessive speed, while deaths involving motorists not wearing seat belts jumped 15 percent.
The bigger question is why. Was 2020 so anomalous because of the pandemic — increased alcohol and marijuana use, less traffic that allowed higher speeds — that it will look like a one-off over the long term?
We should consider ourselves lucky if the rate of automotive deaths reverts to the historical pattern. But two powerful forces could turn 2020 into the start of a dangerous trend.
Horsepower and torque continue to increase year over year — and will likely jump higher as electric vehicles become a larger percentage of the automotive fleet. Meanwhile, display screens on mobile phones now compete with ever-larger vehicle infotainment screens to attract drivers' eyes away from the road.
Safer motoring is in everyone's interest, and even one traffic fatality is one too many. This industry, which has already done so much to improve motorist safety, must not let that progress slip away.