Posted on June 22, 2021

Traffic Deaths Increased During the Pandemic. The Toll Fell More Heavily on Black Residents

Ian Duncan, Washington Post, June 22, 2021

A new analysis of deaths on U.S. roads found that Black people were killed in traffic crashes at a rate almost 25 percent higher than White people in recent years, a disparity that appears to have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year was especially grim on the roads: The number of miles driven decreased as many people stayed home, yet traffic deaths rose 7 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in large part because of people driving faster on emptied highways. The number of Black people killed climbed 23 percent.


Researchers have previously concluded that Black communities tend to be crisscrossed by more dangerous roads. During the pandemic, people of color were more likely to be employed in “essential” jobs without the option to stay home. And people driving faster amid lower traffic levels meant crashes were more likely to be deadly.


NHTSA estimated that 38,680 people were killed in crashes nationwide last year, and said that 7,494 of them were Black.

A new study released Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) highlights the disparities. It analyzed data from 2015 to 2019 and found that in different types of traffic crashes, Black people were killed at higher rates than White people. Black pedestrians were killed at a rate twice as high.

Charles Brown, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Planning and Public Policy, said the figures leave transportation officials facing a simple question.

“We’ve all been socialized, in a way, to believe that Black death is due to Black behavior when instead we know infrastructure influences behavior,” said Brown, who is the founder of planning firm Equitable Cities. “If that is true, we need investments in quality infrastructure in Black communities. How many more Black people do we have to lose before that is the number one priority?”


Under the Biden administration, the Transportation Department has made promoting racial equity a top priority. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the administration is proposing a $20 billion traffic safety proposal to reduce crashes and road deaths as part of its infrastructure plan.

“Last year’s traffic fatality rates and the racial disparities reflected in them are unacceptable,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “This reflects broader patterns of inequity in our country — and it underscores the urgent work we must undertake as a nation to make our roads safer for every American.”

NHTSA said in a statement that it would continue to analyze data from states to better understand the underlying causes of the racial disparities, calling the increase in the rate that Black people were killed last year “disturbing.”

The GHSA study found wide differences among racial and ethnic groups. Hispanics, as well as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, were killed at rates slightly lower than Whites, while Asians had significantly lower death rates. But American Indians and Alaska Natives were killed at much higher rates — more than twice the rate of Black residents.


The GHSA study says enforcement of traffic laws is an effective way to improve safety, but acknowledges that police stops of Black people are under renewed scrutiny, saying they should be conducted only in a way that has the support of local communities.

{snip} The GHSA analysis also found that Black people were killed in crashes involving a police pursuit at a rate four times higher than White people.