Pennsylvania road fatalities jumped in 2020 despite people driving less during pandemic

Despite stay-at-home orders and a dramatic drop in traffic due to the pandemic, Pennsylvania road fatalities surged 6% in 2020, PennDOT announced Tuesday. 

Last year, 1,129 people died in crashes across Pennsylvania, a jump from the 1,059 people who died in 2019, PennDOT reported. 

The news proved little surprise as observers from across the country had warned of disturbing safety trends over the past year. Traffic experts had previously linked road deaths to exposure — when people drove more, more people died in accidents. But 2020 flipped those expectations on their head. 

When the pandemic struck, traffic disappeared almost overnight. Businesses had employees work remotely when possible, schools shifted to virtual learning plans and major tourist destinations closed their doors or limited the number of people they’d serve. By the time 2020 ended, motorists traveled 1.5 billion miles less in Pennsylvania than they had in 2019, an 18.4% decrease, according to the Federal Highway Administration. 

“We cannot definitively say why fatalities increased during the COVID-19 pandemic even though it certainly had an impact on traffic volumes statewide,” PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian said in a news release. “Over the long term, traffic fatalities are still trending down, but we must continue to work together to make our roads safer for all drivers. The surge was fed by a jump in the number of people who died in fatal crashes involving motorcycles, people who drove off the road and speeding, PennDOT data shows. At the same time, the number of people killed in head-on collisions and in pedestrian-involved crashes decreased, according to PennDOT.  

Safety experts may hope the 2020 surge will mark as an anomaly tied to the strangeness of the pandemic. With minor exceptions, road deaths have been trending downwards for years in Pennsylvania since 2005, when 1,616 people died in crashes. The 1,059 people killed in 2019 is still the record low. 

While many types of fatality crashes decreased, including those involving drivers 65 or older, some categories were up. Crashes involving local roads, single vehicle run-off-the-road, motorcycles, and crashes involving speeding were up in 2020. To learn more, click here.  

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