Acting NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement the agency was "working closely with our safety partners to address risky driving behaviors such as speeding, impaired driving, and failing to buckle up."
NHTSA said last year that one factor in the big jump in 2020 was that drivers who remained on roads after lockdowns engaged in riskier behavior.
Some experts said that as U.S. roads became less crowded, some motorists engaged in more unsafe behavior, including those who perceived police were less likely to issue tickets because of COVID-19.
In 2020, deaths involving motorists not wearing seat belts were up 15 percent, speeding related deaths jumped by 10 percent and fatal crashes involving alcohol rose 9 percent.
Data suggests a higher number of serious crashes last year involved drug or alcohol use than previously.
“The surge in motor vehicle crash fatalities must serve as an urgent call to action for Congress and the Biden Administration,” Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement. “Requirements and performance standards for proven vehicle safety technology could be saving tens of thousands of lives each year. The needless deaths on our roads must — and can — be stopped.”
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said in an interview on Wednesday that the rising number of U.S. traffic deaths was a "terrible situation" that needed to be comprehensively addressed.
U.S. driving has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to June traffic data released last month.
“Today’s NHTSA crash report is a sobering reminder of why the autonomous vehicles industry is dedicated to this lifesaving technology,” said Ariel Wolf, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition, whose members include Ford, Volvo, Argo AI and Nuro, among other startups and stakeholders. “AVs — which are designed to operate without human drivers — do not speed, become impaired or get distracted.”
The coalition said it is ready to work with NHTSA to support the development and expansion of AVs to achieve safer U.S. roadways.
Audrey LaForest of Automotive News contributed to this report.