If you’re reading this at a red light, stop and put your phone down. More Marylanders died on the roads in 2022 than in 2019 despite people driving less, and distracted driving was one major cause, a new study found.
TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit, reported that Maryland experienced 557 traffic fatalities in 2022 — one per 100 million miles traveled. That’s 36 more fatalities than in 2019, when drivers traveled over 3 billion miles more than last year. That marks a 16% increase in traffic fatalities per miles traveled over a four-year span.
Traffic fatalities spiked across the country in 2020, reversing a national trend of highways getting safer. Maryland recorded 567 fatalities that first pandemic year and 561 in 2021. Though the number is coming down from the 2020 high, experts worry that it isn’t doing so fast enough.
Even as traffic slowly returns to pre-pandemic patterns across the United States, the report indicates that driving is more dangerous across the country than it used to be.
Many attributed this pandemic highway phenomena to a false sense of security — drivers thought it safer to speed with fewer people on the road. Some psychologists theorized that speeding and other leading causes of severe crashes — such as distraction or fatigue — were the results of stressors caused by the pandemic.
“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, jurisdictions across the nation have experienced an increase in people taking greater risks on the roads, including impaired and distracted driving, speeding and failing to wear seatbelts — all choices that continue to be common factors that contribute to crashes on Maryland roads,” a spokesperson from the State Highway Administration said in an emailed statement.
Maryland’s 16% increase was lower than the national increase of 22%. Other Northeastern states, such as New Hampshire (53% increase) and New York (39% increase), brought that national average up, as did Washington, D.C. (52% increase).
Only Idaho (-6%), Rhode Island (-8%) and Wyoming (-9%) reported a net decrease in fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
The rates of people killed in incidents involving speeding and distracted driving — including cellphone use, adjusting vehicle controls, eating and others — both increased, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Researchers also found that despite more adults wearing a seatbelt in the front passenger seat than ever before (92% in 2022), the number of passengers who died in a crash after not wearing a seatbelt increased by 20% across the country over the four-year span.
Pedestrian and bicycle deaths accounted for roughly one-fifth of all traffic fatalities in 2022, the study found.
The report estimates that serious traffic crashes cost Marylanders roughly $29 billion in 2022, including $7 billion in “economic costs” — medical care, legal costs, property damage and more — and $22 billion in “quality-of-life costs.” This covers prolonged pain or physical impairment, and “loss of remaining lifespan.”
In early 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation adopted a five-tiered National Roadway Safety Strategy to create safer streets. The strategy’s online dashboard outlines a wide range of safety-increasing initiatives including licensing actions against commercial drivers with drug or alcohol violations and making more information about child car seats available in languages other than English.
Last month, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld signed his department up as an “Ally in Action” with the national program. A Maryland State Highway Administration official acknowledged that zero deaths on state highways is the “only acceptable goal.”
Ragina Ali, manager of public and government affairs with AAA Mid-Atlantic, urged drivers to be “especially diligent” during the summer, referring to the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day as the “100 Deadliest Days.” She said that the season is a particularly risky time for young people.
“Teen drivers spend more time behind the wheel in summer months and they certainly have less experience than those who have been driving for years,” said Ali. “But tragedy can impact drivers of any age when good driving behaviors fall by the wayside.”
Work zone fatalities also increased 13% between 2019 and 2021, the report appendix indicates.
In March, six construction workers were killed on Interstate 695 after a crash between two speeding cars sent one careening into the central median. A Baltimore Banner analysis of data from the NHTSA found it to be one of the deadliest work zone crashes in the nation since 1980.
Both drivers involved in the deadly incident face multiple charges, including manslaughter. Prosecutors say they were both traveling at more than 100 mph at the point of impact; the area has a marked speed limit of 55 mph.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.