Washington's roads have gotten deadlier since the start of the pandemic — and that's also been the case across most of the U.S. But in Washington, traffic fatalities have continued to surge in 2022, even as the numbers have started to flatten or decline in other states.
There were 327 deaths on Washington roads in the first half of 2022, up from 249 for the same period in 2021, according to a new study on traffic fatalities. That's 78 additional deaths, or a 31% increase — the sixth-highest jump among states. These numbers include all traffic fatalities — drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and so on — but a breakdown isn't available because the data is preliminary.
That increase goes against the national trend. The number of U.S. traffic fatalities dropped by about 1% for the first half of 2022.
The study comes from Seattle-based QuoteWizard, an online insurance policy comparison tool, and is based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Safety Council.
The number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. started to climb as the pandemic took hold. In fact, the 42,000 deaths on American roads in 2020 was a 13-year high. In Washington, there were 546 traffic fatalities in 2020, up from 516 in 2019 — a fairly modest 5% increase.
It might seem counterintuitive that traffic fatalities went up in 2020 since there were far fewer people driving during the lockdowns. But those wide open roads encouraged some risky behaviors, said Nick VinZant, a senior research analyst at QuoteWizard.
"What we saw nationwide, beginning in 2020, was this spike in fatalities," VinZant said.
Data shows the spike overwhelmingly involved younger drivers going too fast on uncongested roads, he said. Nationally, the number of speeding-related deaths increased by 11% in 2020, even as the total number of miles driven decreased.
VinZant said the expectation was that the spike in fatalities during 2020 would just be a blip, and that the numbers would quickly start to decline in 2021 as traffic volume began to pick up again. But that didn't happen.
"We really thought [it] would then revert to the trend we've [been] seeing since the 1970s where traffic fatalities were declining," he said. "But then we saw the 2021 fatality numbers, and they were up again, and that was a huge surprise."
Washington ranked among the 10 states with the biggest jumps in traffic fatalities last year, climbing from 546 in 2020 to 643 in 2021 — an 18% increase. That's double the national rate of increase of 9%, as fatalities in the U.S. rose from 42,000 in 2020 to 46,000 in 2021. Only eight states experienced a traffic decrease in fatalities last year.
So why did fatalities continue to climb in 2021?
VinZant says that our driving hasn't gotten better, even as the roads became more crowded.
"Those driving habits that we established during the height of the pandemic when we were driving on those open roads have not shifted back to the way that we were driving in 2019 and before," he said.
But the data for the first half of 2022, which shows traffic fatalities are leveling off nationwide, suggests driving behaviors are finally changing in response to the increasingly crowded roads.
So why isn't this happening in Washington, where fatalities are up 31% for the first half of 2022?
It's difficult to say with certainty — as with any short-term trend, it could simply be a fluke. But VinZant thinks it may have to do with Washington taking longer to return to pre-pandemic norms than other states.
"I think that Washington's response has been delayed, because Washington — and especially the Seattle area — has not gone back to work, and the traffic didn't pick up the way it did in other states," he said.
Traffic volumes in this area are only now starting to return to pre-pandemic levels, VinZant said, but he thinks a lot of us are still holding on to those bad driving habits from when there were fewer people on the road.
The study also shows that nationwide, urban roads have had a bigger increase in traffic fatalities than rural ones so far in 2022 — and in particular, smaller urban "collector" roads that typically connect arterials with local streets.