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Traffic deaths in Pa. and N.J. continued to rise in 2021. Nationally, fatalities hit a 16-year high.

The elevated numbers continued a trend that began in 2020, when deaths spiked, despite a steep drop-off in traffic due to COVID-19 shutdowns.

An SUV traveling at least 100 mph on May 10 jumped a curb in Kensington, hitting and killing two pedestrians before slamming into SEPTA's Allegheny Station. The driver also was killed in crash, which happened about 2:45 a.m.
An SUV traveling at least 100 mph on May 10 jumped a curb in Kensington, hitting and killing two pedestrians before slamming into SEPTA's Allegheny Station. The driver also was killed in crash, which happened about 2:45 a.m.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / MCT

Traffic deaths soared 10.5% nationwide last year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Transportation estimate, the largest annual percentage increase since 1975, when the Fatality Analysis Reporting System began.

In all, 42,975 people died in crashes on roads and highways during 2021, with alarming spikes in fatalities in urban areas and among pedestrians struck by motor vehicles.

“An increase in dangerous driving — speeding, distracted driving, drug- and alcohol-impaired driving, not buckling up — during the pandemic, combined with roads designed for speed instead of safety, has wiped out a decade and a half of progress,” said Russ Martin, senior policy director at the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week released early estimates of 2021 traffic deaths, overall and by types of crashes. It is the highest number of traffic deaths since 2005.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey

Traffic deaths rose 9.3% in Pennsylvania, as NHTSA projected 1,234 people were killed on state roads and highways last year, up from 1,129.

New Jersey roads and highways were about 21% more deadly last year, when 709 people were killed, up from 584 in 2020. Preliminary state police figures released in January roughly corroborate the trend.

Nationwide, fatal crashes on urban roadways increased 16%; pedestrian deaths were up 13%, and deaths of bicyclists were up 5%, NHTSA found.

» READ MORE: Traffic deaths jumped 88% in Philly last year despite fewer cars on road

Philadelphia appeared to do better than the state and nation in terms of overall traffic deaths. They dropped about 20% in the city last year compared with 2020, according to PennDot statistics.

Yet seven bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in Philadelphia last year, PennDot said, representing about a 40% increase in rider deaths. Forty-five pedestrians were killed in city crashes in 2021 — four fewer than in the previous year.

NHTSA said its data are incomplete because not all 2021 crash reports have been entered and coded, so numbers could be adjusted slightly. The agency used a statistical model to make projections based on trends found in the available information.

Causes and possible solutions

The elevated 2021 numbers marked the continuation of a trend that began in 2020, when traffic deaths spiked, despite a steep drop-off in vehicle miles traveled due to widespread COVID-19 shutdowns and changed work patterns.

“Due to the pandemic, the most impactful traffic-calming method that engineers have designed for roads and highways, which is congestion, stopped being effective,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Though it promotes biking, the organization also advocates for engineering changes and greater enforcement of red-light and speeding violations to protect pedestrians and users of other alternative modes of transportation.

» READ MORE: Speeding tickets and crashes fell after enforcement cameras came to Roosevelt Blvd.

With fewer vehicles on the roads, reckless driving increased. Experts who’ve studied the seeming paradox theorize that, among other things, drivers felt emboldened to speed and take chances they might not have in times of heavier traffic.

In addition to automated enforcement, states and municipalities should begin designing streets with speed limits that “account for the entirety of the roadway environment as opposed to the common practice of focusing on average vehicle speeds,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington coalition of public health and law enforcement officials, safety groups and insurance companies.

Chase said the federal government should require new cars to have such technologies as automatic emergency braking and detection systems that catch when a driver’s vehicle is drifting out of its lane. Those and other safety changes are mandated in the new infrastructure act but DOT has not developed rules to carry it out.

The Transportation Department is years behind on implementing 13 safety measures that Congress already has ordered.

And another issue is gaining more attention from highway safety engineers and planners: the proliferation of massive pickup trucks and SUVs as family cars.

“Vehicle designs are contributing to drivers being unable to see pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Stuart, of the Bicycle Coalition. “Trucks and SUVs are being built with very high clearances and USDot doesn’t regulate them.”