A recent report shows U.S. traffic fatalities hit a 16-year high in 2021, up 10.5% from the year before. Early analysis from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that 42,915 people perished in motor vehicle crashes last year compared to 38,824 fatalities in 2020.

Forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are all anticipated to show increased traffic fatalities once they report final numbers.

Labeling these numbers a “crisis,” the NHTSA announcement also highlights the national road safety programs and funding flowing out of the recent bipartisan Infrastructure Law. New safety efforts include a return to the familiar “Click It or Ticket” campaign to encourage seat belt use. NHTSA emphasizes that seat belts improve survival, even as the number of crashes increases.

Truck-involved crashes that resulted in fatalities ranked among the groups with the highest increases in the year-to-year NHTSA comparisons:

  • Fatalities in multi-vehicle crashes up 16%
  • Fatalities on urban roads up 16%
  • Fatalities among drivers 65 and older up 14%
  • Pedestrian fatalities up 13%
  • Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck up 13% 
  • Daytime fatalities up 11%
  • Motorcyclist fatalities up 9%
  • Bicyclist fatalities up 5%
  • Fatalities in speeding-related crashes up 5%
  • Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes up 5%

This NHTSA report provides only a preliminary analysis of year-to-year fatality numbers over multiple categories and does not draw conclusions as to the direct cause of the crashes. But some groups are responding to the rise in fatal crashes by advancing their preferred solutions.

For example, the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, which includes some autonomous truck manufacturers, described the data as “the most sobering crash report since the inception of the traffic fatality tracking system in 1975.” The group noted that autonomous vehicles “do not speed, become impaired, or get distracted.”

The Truck Safety Coalition, a truck safety advocacy organization, viewed the NHTSA report as an urgent call for:

  • automatic emergency braking and advanced driver assistance systems on all trucks
  • speed limiters on all trucks
  • increasing the minimum insurance requirements for trucks from $750,000 to $5 million

Adjusting for vehicle miles traveled (VMT), NHTSA estimates that the fatality rate per 100 million miles was 1.33 for 2021, compared to 1.34 in 2020. That would suggest that the increase in total deaths may be attributable to an increase in year-over-year travel. While NHTSA tracks overall vehicle mileage, crashes, and the resulting fatality rate, truck-specific mileages and fatality rate calculations should be announced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration later in the year.