US traffic deaths down 3.6% in 2023 but above pre-pandemic levels

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. traffic deaths fell by 3.6% in 2023, the second straight yearly decline, but are still significantly above pre-pandemic levels, auto safety regulators said on Monday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 40,990 people died in traffic crashes last year compared to 42,514 deaths in 2022. Fatalities are still much higher than the 36,355 people killed in 2019. At the time, traffic deaths had fallen for three straight years.

The fatality rate in 2023 was higher than any pre-pandemic year since 2008. Total miles driven last year topped pre-pandemic levels for the first time.

As U.S. roads became less crowded during the COVID-19 pandemic, some motorists perceived police as less likely to issue tickets, experts said, likely resulting in riskier behavior on the roads.

U.S. traffic deaths jumped 10.5% in 2021 to 42,915, the highest number killed on American roads in a single year since 2005.

In 2022, the number of pedestrians killed rose 0.7% to 7,522, the most since 1981, NHTSA said in a separate report on Monday. The number of cyclists killed rose 13% to 1,105 in 2022, the most since at least 1980.

NHTSA also said fatal traffic crashes involving drivers 65 or older increased by 4.7% to 7,870 in 2022 - the most fatalities in traffic crashes involving older drivers since the agency began keeping records in 1975.

Incidents of speeding and traveling under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or without wearing seatbelts rose during the pandemic even as the number of road users declined.

The agency's acting administrator told Reuters last year some increase in traffic deaths was due to near empty roads during the pandemic that led to higher speeding and additional bad driver behavior.

The agency said alcohol- and drug-impaired driving remains a significant problem and a stubborn 10% of drivers do not wear seat belts. NHTSA has proposed requiring rear seat belt reminders in future vehicles.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Josie Kao)