According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or “NHTSA,” 2021 was the worst year for fatalities on our nation’s highways since 2005. Around 43,000 people died on U.S. highways last year, an increase of over 10 percent from the prior year. The increase was seen in all ten NHTSA regions of the United States. The increase happened in 44 states, and involved multi-vehicle crashes, crashes on urban roads, daytime crashes, crashes involving seniors over the age of sixty-five, crashes involving pedestrians and those involving at least one large truck. Alcohol and speeding-related crashes increased as well, but by “only” 5 percent. Nationally, traffic deaths have increased every year for the past three years.

Arizona didn’t fare any better. Traffic fatalities surged to a fifteen-year high in 2021, with an estimated 1,120 deaths on our state’s roads, according to the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

So what caused the increase in highway deaths last year, and what can we do about it?  Nationally, the continued decline of seatbelt use is one of the culprits. Another reason is more people spending more time on the road, especially during what are hopefully the waning months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as road users traveled about 325 billion more miles last year than they did in 2020.  In Arizona, more people were distracted, reckless and driving faster, according to Alberto Gutierrez, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. More motorists were cited for impaired driving than in prior years, as DUI arrests reached their highest level since 2013.

The arguments in favor of seatbelt usage are compelling. Nearly 50 percent of the 22,000 vehicle occupants killed on our nation’s highways in 2019 were not wearing seatbelts. During that year, seatbelts saved an estimated 15,000 lives and likely would have saved over 2,500 more if the vehicle occupants had been wearing seatbelts. While the national seatbelt use rate last year was over 90 percent, the goal is for every occupant of a motor vehicle to be wearing one.  In Arizona, front seat vehicle occupants are required to wear seatbelts, as are occupants under the age of sixteen, if the vehicle is so equipped. And in the event one pursues a personal injury or wrongful death case arising out of an injury or fatality caused by a negligent motorist, the injured person’s failure to wear an available seatbelt, under certain circumstances, can cause a jury to reduce, and in some cases deny, monetary recovery for the injured person or surviving family members (also known as the “seat belt defense”).

So please stay safe, slow down, and buckle up!