The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released a report showing the largest six-month increase ever recorded for traffic fatalities. It estimated 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, up 18.4% compared to the first six months of 2020.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called this “a crisis,” and said the U.S. Transportation Department would produce the first “National Roadway Safety Strategy” by this coming January. The plan will identify steps individuals, companies, government and communities can take to save lives on the road.

The NHTSA report does not break down crashes by type of vehicle, such as cars versus trucks. But it does show vehicle miles of travel (VMT) increasing by an estimated 13% in the first half of 2021. The fatality rate during that time climbed from 1.28 fatalities per 100 million VMT in the first half of 2020 to 1.34 fatalities per 100 million VMT in early 2021.

In addition to the rise in fatalities, the data revealed increases in other areas of concern. The number of people who suffer high-level trauma from crashes also grew due to the severity of these crashes.

NHTSA research found four risky behaviors are driving the fatality rate increase and the severity of the crashes themselves:

  • Failure to wear seat belts
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Excessive speeding
  • Distracted driving

While NHTSA did not look at the incidence of these risky behaviors by type of vehicle, Operation Safe Driver Week, conducted annually by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), does offer some insight. During the 2021 Operation Safe Driver Week, law enforcement officers pulled over commercial motor vehicles and passenger vehicles when drivers  engaged in dangerous driving behaviors. The top violation by both motorists and truck drivers was speeding. Number two violation? Failure to wear seat belts.

The CVSA results exposed significant differences between car and truck drivers. The use of alcohol and drug use and distracted driving was far more prevalent among motorists than truckers.

Curbing excessive speed may mean paying closer attention to speed limit signs in the near future. The upcoming National Roadway Safety Strategy will include the Federal Highway Administration’s “Proven Safety Countermeasures” initiative, a collection of strategies to improve the safety of the roadway itself. This year the FHWA program added three speed management elements: speed safety cameras, variable speed limits, and appropriate speed limits for all road users. As states and local governments incorporate these speed management tactics, drivers of both cars and trucks will come under more scrutiny for excessive speed – and not just during Operation Safe Driver Week.

So, car and truck drivers share two of the NHTSA root causes for the fatality rate increase. Sometimes improving safety can be as simple as buckle up and slow down. At the same time, another risky behavior lurks in all of us –  complacency. Seat belts and safe speeds, speed cameras and government countermeasures cannot replace continual vigilance on the road. Yes, buckle up and slow down – and watch out for the other guy.