Fatal Auto Accidents Rise in New York Despite Decline in Traffic

By: Adam H. Rosenblum Esq.  Published: 12/21/21

Ambulance Car Accident Scene

When the COVID-19-induced lockdowns began in early 2020, the number of vehicles on the road plummeted. Despite the decline in traffic—or perhaps because of it—many people observed more aggressive driving behavior. Early data from the New York State DMV shows that the number of fatal accidents increased, likely due to this rise in aggressive driving.  

The number of fatal crashes actually rose almost 8%, from 881 to 948. Even worse, the total number of persons killed in these fatal accidents rose by a greater amount, from 938 in 2019 to 1031 in 2020—a 10% increase. However, last year the number of automobile accidents saw a decline of 27%—from 447,021 in 2019 to 327,202 in 2020.

This number is even more prominent considering that there were far fewer cars on the road in 2020 than there were in 2019 as a result of pandemic lockdowns and remote work. Data analytics company Zendrive reported that, nationwide, the number of accidents per vehicle-mile rose 63% throughout 2020. This, combined with the notable increase in serious accidents, shows that drivers have, in fact, been much more aggressive on the road since the pandemic started.

fetal crashes in NY state and Persons kills in Auto Accidents 2018 - 2020

This trend isn’t exclusive to passenger vehicles. Motorcycle accidents saw an even more deadly increase. The number of fatal motorcycle crashes rose 36% in 2020, from 132 to 180.

Bicycle accidents also saw an uptick in fatalities. Total bike crashes rose 3% in 2020, but fatal accidents spiked by 10%. It’s worth noting that bike accidents, including fatal crashes, have climbed steadily for several years. However, 2020’s increase is larger than average. 

Only large truck accidents defied this trend, with fatal accidents remaining largely flat: 76 in 2020 compared to 80 in 2019. 

Were Drivers Really More Aggressive Last Year?

The term “aggressive driving” is ill-defined, but the rise in unsafe driving behavior as a factor in auto accidents last year is well documented. According to DMV accident reports, aggressive driving (including its most extreme form, road rage) was listed as a factor in 2,647 accidents. This is 10% higher than in 2019, which saw only 2,410 crashes attributed to it. 

DMV data also shows a decline in “aggressive driving” tickets. Tickets considered “aggressive” include failure to yield, tailgating, red light and stop sign tickets, and unsafe lane changes, among others. The number of tickets issued for such violations dropped 47% from 598,799 in 2019 to 317,606 in 2020. 

A reduction in any type of traffic ticket can sometimes be attributed to drivers committing the violation less frequently. In this case, however, it is more likely the result of police being reluctant to issue tickets during the pandemic, and not the result of fewer people driving aggressively.

On the other hand, the very fact that the total number of fatal car crashes increased while the amount of road traffic actually decreased seems to be a solid indicator of an increase in reckless, aggressive and/or distracted driving.

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