As of December 12, a tally by Reuters found that the number of deaths in the United States due to the various variants of Covid-19 has reached 800,000. Furthermore, there is a probability of a new surge because the latest Omicron variant is highly transmissible. This is a national tragedy that the entire country is mourning.
There is another growing danger to American lives, though. The Los Angeles Times reported that 38,680 people died in road accidents in 2020. This was the highest number since 2007. It represents an increase of 7.2 percent from 2019. This was at a time when the total miles driven by the population decreased by 13 percent due to lockdowns and having more people working from home.
In the first half of 2021, things got even worse. According to preliminary data of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the number of deaths from road accidents further increased by more than 18 percent in the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. There were already 20,160 deaths from vehicular accidents from January to June alone. It represents the highest six-month leap in the NHTSA’s reporting history.
All states experienced this grim scenario, but the highest rates were in Rhode Island, Arkansas, Vermont, and South Dakota. The numbers increased no matter what day of the week or what time of day or night, in back roads and highways of both rural and metropolitan areas. Victims came from all age groups.
Causes of Vehicular Crashes
Data shows a high percentage of crashes that involved just one vehicle. This points to driver recklessness. More fatal accidents were due to speeding, not wearing a seat belt, or driving under the influence (DUI) of liquor or illegal substances.
Investigations on the accidents have shown that even a small increase in speed already increases the risk of death for a driver and any passengers. The trend toward speeding during the pandemic is seen in data from California, where officers wrote almost 28,500 tickets for speeds beyond 100 mph in 2020.
This was almost double the number of tickets they issued in 2019. There was a 150 percent increase in people arrested for reckless driving, reaching 232. This year, they are already exceeding that number.
Many of the accident victims across the country were ejected from the vehicle because they were not wearing seat belts. Researchers also found that during the pandemic, drivers have been using their mobile phones on the road more frequently. They are distracted while driving. These are also markers of recklessness.
Also, during the pandemic, there was twice the number of intoxicated drivers who were killed or injured. This is aligned with the results of a study published in September 2021, showing that American drivers admitted they were more likely to drink and drive during the pandemic.
Penalties for DUI
In most states, reckless driving and DUI are misdemeanors, with jail time ranging from six months to one year. In some states, jail time is shorter for a first offense. If the vehicle is on federal land, though, DUI becomes a federal crime, and the driver, if they survive, will need a federal criminal defense lawyer.
Federal lands include all lots owned by the government, including national parks, national or historical monuments, courthouses, airports, and military forts or bases. Even if the driver does not know that they are driving on federal land, it is not an acceptable excuse.
Best Practices: Indiana’s Response
From January to October 2021, there were 683 vehicular accident fatalities in Indiana. The rate is almost the same as in 2020, but it is eight percent higher than before the pandemic in 2019. The estimate is that travels during the holiday season can bring the number of fatalities to more than 900 by year’s end. This will be one of the peaks in the past 10 years.
To address this problem of reckless driving, in October this year, the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute gave a total grant of $6.5 million for traffic safety initiatives to more than 200 police departments across the state. The funds were from the NHTSA’s federal coffers.
Because the highest increase in fatal vehicular accidents occurred in urban areas this year, the largest share of $1.5 million was granted to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Next, a million was granted to the Indiana State Police.
The police departments intend to send out high-visibility zero-tolerance speed enforcement teams working overtime patrols. Each team will have a stationary officer acting as a spotter who will then communicate radio to a mobile partner when a speeder is detected. There will also be sobriety checkpoints. During the holiday season, a campaign dubbed Safe Family Travel will be implemented.
Hopefully, more states will follow the lead of Indiana and take concrete steps toward addressing the road safety issue. Most vehicular accidents and fatalities are preventable, and lives must be saved.