42,915 Americans Died in Traffic in 2021

This is up 10.5% over 2020. What's happening here?

New York kids protesting after car crash
Transportation Activists Demonstrate For Safer Streets In Wake Of Pedestrian Deaths In Brooklyn.

Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

We complain a lot about the impact of motor vehicles: the fossil fuels they consume, the space they occupy, and most recently, the carbon footprint of making and storing them. And every year, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) releases its estimates of traffic fatalities, we wonder how we got into this mess.

This year's release makes it particularly clear how bad cars are for cities, with deaths on local roads up 20% over 2020. It's hard to imagine another product not enshrined in the Constitution being allowed on the market, given what it does to our climate, our cities, and our lives.

According to the NHSTA, 42,915 Americans were killed in or by motor vehicles this year. Using our standard annual comparison, that is the equivalent of a full 178-seat Boeing 737 Max 8 falling out of the sky every 36 hours. We know what happened when just two of those planes crashed: The entire fleet was grounded for almost two years.

Nothing of the sort happens when so many people die on the roads. There are no investigations, there may be a few thoughts and prayers, and perhaps some encouraging words from the current administration. In a statement in response to the NHSTA release, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together.”

They had better do something; these are big numbers.

Table 1


When you dive into the detail, it gets even scarier.

  • 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% 

Perhaps the number that pops out is that, while the overall increase in deaths is 10.5% over 2020, the rate of fatalities in urban areas was up 16%. Deaths on urban collectors and local roads are up an astonishing 20% over the year.

What's happening on our city streets?

In New York City, Transportation Alternatives notes that in 2021, 70% of drivers were speeding. They write, "In the first four months of 2021, 70 people were killed. The last 12 months have been the deadliest 12-month period since Vision Zero began in 2014."

change in fatalities


Anecdotally, this seems to be the case everywhere, although the region containing New York City seems to be giving the Texas region a good race.

The NHTSA is certainly talking a better line than it did during the last administration when the onus was on pedestrians sharing the road and not looking at their phones. The current deputy administrator doesn't appear to be blaming the victim.

“This crisis on our roads is urgent and preventable,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator. “We will redouble our safety efforts, and we need everyone—state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers—to join us. All of our lives depend on it.”

The administration does appear to be doing something. The new Infrastructure Law apparently "advances Complete Streets policies and standards; requires updates to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which defines speeds, lane markings, traffic lights and more on most roads in the country; and sharply increases funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program, which helps states adopt data-driven approaches to making roads safer."

They are also introducing a "Safe System Approach" that actually says things like:

  1. Death and Serious Injuries Are Unacceptable. A Safe System approach prioritizes the elimination of crashes that result in death and serious injuries.
  2. Humans Make Mistakes. People will inevitably make mistakes and decisions that can lead to or contribute to crashes, but the transportation system can be designed and operated to accommodate certain types and levels of human mistakes, and avoid death and serious injuries when a crash occurs.
  3. Humans Are Vulnerable. Human bodies have physical limits for tolerating crash forces before death or serious injury occurs; therefore, it is critical to design and operate a transportation system that is human-centric and accommodates physical human vulnerabilities.
seat belt campaign poster


But they continue to do nothing about vehicle design or even think about speed governors. They don't break the data down by type of vehicle so that we can see how bad SUVs and pickups are.

They won't even talk about bringing back seat belt ignition interlocks—it was the law in 1974 but everyone hated them—and instead, they have launched a "click it or ticket" campaign to address the fact that "unrestrained occupants of passenger vehicles (up 3%)—still higher as compared to the pre-pandemic levels of2019."

fatalities by type


One can only repeat these numbers: 42,915 Americans were killed because of motor vehicles, 11,780 because of speeding, 8,174 because of drinking, 7,342 Americans while walking, and 985 while cycling. These are only the numbers for those who died; the number with life-altering injuries is many times that. And it doesn't include the people who die annually from transportation-related air pollution; for that, researchers estimate roughly 17,000 to 20,000 people.

Americans should be lining up to burn the carmakers in effigy for all this carnage; instead, they are lining up to buy F-150s, Rams, and Silverados. It's bizarre.

View Article Sources
  1. "Newly Released Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities Reached a 16-Year High in 2021." NHTSA, 17 May 2022.

  2. "Too Fast, Too Furious." Transportation Alternatives.

  3. "Early Estimates of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities And Fatality Rate by Sub-Categories in 2021." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. May 2022.

  4. Choma, E.F. et al. "Health benefits of decreases in on-road transportation emissions in the United States from 2008 to 2017." PNAS, vol. 118, no. 51, 13 Dec. 2021. doi:10.1073/pnas.2107402118