The Governors Highway Safety Association said "far too many drivers saw open roads as an invitation to engage in risky behaviors like speeding, driving under the influence and driving unrestrained."
By contrast, the fatality rate for 2019 was just 1.10 deaths per 100 million miles, the lowest rate since 2014 as traffic deaths fell by 2 percent to 36,096, the agency said Thursday.
Traffic data showed average speeds increased and extreme speeding became more common. Data from some states suggested that fewer people were wearing seat belts during the lockdown.
"In short, the stay-at-home orders may have led the population of drivers during the height of the health crisis to have been smaller but more willing to take risks," NHTSA found.
John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said the 2019 fatality figures from NHTSA show the need for policies that support safety innovations, such as modernizing outdated regulations, establishing a federal framework for developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies and preserving the 5.9 GHz safety spectrum band for connected vehicles and infrastructure.
“While we are pleased to see 2019’s fatality rate drop to a five-year low, this year’s unexpected uptick in motor vehicle fatality rates -- largely attributed to the impacts of COVID-19 and driver behavior changes -- is troubling,” he said. “We need to carefully analyze these statistics to understand how motorists and other stakeholders can restore the progress we have made in recent years to reduce roadway fatalities.”
NHTSA also noted that in the wake of the outbreak enforcement of some traffic laws was reduced. "It is possible that drivers’ perception that they may be caught breaking a law was reduced," the report found.
NHTSA also said that since coronavirus risks are higher for older Americans, that could have minimized driving by more risk-averse drivers.
Audrey LaForest of Automotive News contributed to this report.