The Avoidable Tragedy of Road Deaths

The Avoidable Tragedy of Road Deaths

The media pays a lot of attention to rising crime, but more than twice as many people die in traffic collisions in the US.


After the shootings of a baby, a teenager, and two police officers in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams was quick to respond to the problem of gun violence. He gave a speech on the subject in January and laid out a comprehensive plan for combating violent crime.

But other deaths commanded few major headlines. In December, a truck hit Arcellie Muschamp while she was on duty as a nanny pushing a 1-year-old boy in a stroller across an intersection. She saved the boy’s life by pushing him out of the way, but she died from her injuries. No charges were immediately filed against the driver. Then in January, a bus driver hit and killed Antonina Zatulovska, a 15-year-old who was in the crosswalk. The driver was arrested and issued a desk appearance ticket. And in February, a man with six citations for speeding in school zones in 2021 fatally struck Jack Mikulincer, a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor on his way to synagogue.

Gun deaths are tragic, but so are motor vehicle deaths, and they are on an even steeper increase. Yet far more attention has been paid to violent crime than to people dying on the roads.

Despite the fact that there were fewer people driving during the first year of the pandemic, the number of motor vehicle deaths rose 24 percent in 2020, the biggest increase in 96 years, according to the nonprofit National Safety Council. The relatively empty roads prompted people to drive at higher speeds, forgo seat belts, and take the wheel drunk. Overall, an estimated 42,060 people died in traffic collisions that year. The trend appears to have continued in 2021, with an estimated 21,450 deaths in the first six months, up 16 percent from the year before.

But roadway deaths were on the rise even before the pandemic. The number of deaths increased about 10 percent between 2010 and 2019, and the number of pedestrians killed in collisions grew 45 percent. It doesn’t have to be this way: Most other developed countries have reduced traffic fatalities over the past decade.

As with many things, these tragedies are unevenly distributed. Despite being less likely to own an automobile, low-income people are more likely to be hit by one. Black, Hispanic, Native, and elderly people, as well as wheelchair users, are also at disproportionate risk of dying.

There has been a lot more attention paid to rising crime, but the numbers are nowhere near those of road deaths. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 19,491 people died from gun violence (excluding suicides) in 2020, up from 15,475 in 2019. Last year was similar, with 20,811 people killed by gunfire. While violent crime increased during the pandemic, the overall trend has been a steep decline since the late 1980s and early ’90s.

To his credit, Mayor Adams delivered an address in the wake of Muschamp’s death, although it garnered far less press attention, in which he announced a plan to make intersections safer through raised crosswalks, bike corrals, and other traffic-calming measures, plus more traffic enforcement and a public awareness campaign. The federal government also put forward a national strategy in January that encourages state and local governments to design safer roads, lower speed limits, and reduce drunk driving. But we must go much, much further if we’re serious about preventing car deaths.

One solution is to install speed cameras, which have decreased fatal and serious crashes by up to 58 percent in Europe, where they are ubiquitous. They also have the benefit of reducing interactions between law enforcement and drivers that allow police to target people of color, saddling them with fines or, far too often, leaving them dead.

We also need to change our roads, which often plow through Black and low-income communities with the goal of making it easier to drive farther and faster. Replacing intersections with roundabouts could reduce crashes by more than 50 percent. We can hem in streets with curbs. Removing lanes, adding shoulders, bike paths, and speed bumps, and creating turn lanes would all decrease speeding and crashes.

Also, we need to rethink the way we design cars. Since 2000, the hood height of passenger trucks has increased by 11 percent and their weight by 24 percent. Consumer Reports found many trucks and SUVs have blind spots in front that are 11 feet longer than those of sedans. Many vehicles make it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians and increase the chance of fatality when they crash into someone. Americans are famous for our car culture, but it comes at a cost. A gun is a deadly weapon, but a car can be, too. It’s a national tragedy that deserves a national outcry.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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