Car crash fatality rate could bounce with risky driving, wet winter

In the winter of 2020, expect to see two factors bump up the car crash fatality rate in Washington: a rainy winter, and bad driving decisions.

Overall, the car crash fatality rate across the U.S. has been lower in 2020, according to NHTSA’s early projections. Due to pandemic shutdowns, the total traffic volume decreased by more than 16% in the first six months of 2020. Fewer cars on the road mean fewer car crashes.

But because traffic volumes decreased more significantly than did the number of fatal crashes, the traffic fatality rate per 100 million VMT (vehicle miles traveled), is projected to increase significantly in 2020.

Here’s why that happened—and why we’re worried about the winter of 2020 in Washington State.

Risky driving  = higher car crash fatality rate

Anecdotally, many of us have observed an uptick in dangerous driving, either in person or in the local news.

NHTSA’s preliminary data for 2020 backs that up. Reckless driving is up across the country—and causing more car crash deaths. The initial projections estimate more deaths per miles traveled, even with fewer cars on the road.

There are a number of reasons this could be happening. Most stem from drivers making bad choices, which is why we call these “car crashes”, not “car accidents”. Here’s what the evidence suggests so far.

  • The average vehicle speeds increased during the second quarter of 2020, as did the number of extreme speeds recorded.

We know that there is a direct correlation between speed and the likelihood of a car crash fatality. An incident that a driver might survive at 55 mph is likely to be fatal at 85 mph.

Back in April 2020, the Washington State Patrol reported an increase in extreme high speeds (in excess of 150 mph), reckless driving, and attempts to elude Troopers.

  • More car crash fatality victims had failed to use their seatbelts.

For decades, we’ve know that wearing seatbelts makes us safer. That’s why they’re required in every car or truck sold to consumers in America, and why we have seatbelt laws.

  • Many places are experiencing an increase in drunk drivers.

According to NHTSA deputy administrator James Owens:

“Our preliminary findings suggest that since mid-March, more drivers had alcohol or drugs in their systems…”

We don’t need to tell you that driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol significantly increases the odds of a crash.

Wet winter weather = more collisions

If you have ever navigated I-90 through the Snoqualmie Pass in the winter, you probably know how dangerous a wet highway in a mountain pass can be.

We can expect an even rainier, snowier winter in Washington State this year.

NOAA has released the winter climate outlook for 2020-2021. For the Pacific Northwest, NOAA is projecting the average temperatures will be lower—and average precipitation will be higher.

Winter 2020 US Precipitation Outlook Winter 2020 US Temperature Outlook

Most of the weather-related car crash in the U.S. are related to one of more of these factors:

  • Wet roads;
  • Ice and icy roads;
  • Rain;
  • Snow and sleet;
  • Fog.

A wetter and colder winter in Washington is very likely to increase the number of crashes.

“I have always felt that winter storms were way underrated as far as fatalities are concerned because it is not always that easy to tie together things like auto accidents and a winter weather event,”

–  The Weather Channel winter weather expert Tom Nizoil 

The car crash fatality rates for 2020 are preliminary, and the causes are well within human control. The NOAA weather climate forecast is a series of projections.

But we won’t be surprised to see this combination result in a more dangerous winter on our streets and roads.

There is a reason that we use “car crash” instead of “car accident” on our blog. For smart, curious readers:

You need to stop using the phrase “car accident”…


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