Nearly 43,000 people were killed in U.S. traffic crashes in 2021, the highest number in 16 years, with deaths due to speeding and impaired or distracted driving on the rise.
The final official numbers, released earlier this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), confirmed earlier estimates showing a 10.5 percent increase in deaths over 2020.
The number of fatalities for 2021 is the highest number in 16 years and the largest percentage increase since 1975.
Data shows a 12 percent rise in fatal crashes involving at least one distracted driver, with 3,522 people killed. The increase in fatal distracted driver crashes prompted the agency to kick off a $5 million advertising campaign in an effort to keep drivers focused.
The number of pedestrians killed rose 13 percent, while deaths of unbelted passengers increased 8.1 percent.
In comparison to the total number of U.S. traffic fatalities in 2021, data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol reports that there were 1,149 fatal traffic crashes in Ohio in 2021.
In 2022, there were 1,104 fatal crashes in Ohio, and so far in 2023, there have been 220 fatal crashes in Ohio.
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, there were eight fatal crashes in 2021 in Highland County. The county had five fatal crashes in 2022 and one so far in 2023.
“Distracted driving involving smartphones is, without a doubt, a major contributing factor to this increase in traffic fatalities,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in a press release announcing an increase in traffic fatalities.
A law signed by DeWine earlier this year made it illegal to use or hold a cell phone or electronic device while driving on Ohio roads. The Ohio State Patrol and local law enforcement will issue warnings until Oct. 5, 2023, when point deductions, fines and possible license suspensions will be imposed.
At a news conference Monday, NHTSA focused on distracted driving fatalities, which speakers said are entirely preventable if people stop using their cell phones, eating or doing other things that divert attention from the road.
“Remember, it only takes a moment to change your life forever,” said Sophie Shulman, NHTSA deputy administrator.
Steve Kiefer, a retired General Motors executive whose son, Mitchel, was killed in a 2016 distracted driving crash, said cell phones are a primary cause of distraction, but technology is available to prevent it including “do not disturb” modes, as well as apps and in-car systems that watch drivers to make sure they’re paying attention.
“All of this technology is available today, and there’s no reason we can’t use it and roll it out quickly,” Kiefer said.
Distracted driving deaths are related to America’s addiction to cell phones, said Kiefer, who started a foundation with the goal of ending distracted driving. He said 90 percent of people are aware of the danger of distracted driving, yet 80 percent admit to doing it. In 25 states with laws against hand-held cell phone use, traffic deaths, crashes and insurance rates have dropped, he said.
Mitchel Kiefer was driving from home to Michigan State University on Interstate 96 when traffic slowed and his car was hit from behind by a driver who was distracted by her phone, Kiefer said. His car was knocked across the median and into oncoming traffic, where he was killed instantly.
The crash was not reported as involving a distracted driver, illustrating how distracted driving deaths are under-reported, Kiefer said.
Part of the increase in crash deaths is due to people driving more as the coronavirus pandemic waned.
NHTSA also estimated that 2.5 million people were injured in crashes during 2021, up 9.4 percent from 2020.
Reach John Hackley at 937-402-2571.