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U.S. traffic deaths reached a 16-year high in 2021, according to government estimates

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Investigators look over the scene of a crash between an SUV and a semi-truck full of gravel near Holtville, California on March 2, 2021.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

More people died on U.S. roadways last year than any year since 2005, according to new data released Tuesday by federal vehicle safety officials.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, estimates 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021, a 10.5% increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020. The deaths include pedestrians, cyclists and others who may have died during a crash.

Fatalities from multi-vehicle crashes and those on urban roadways both rose 16%, according to the agency, the largest year-over-year increases for incident-specific data. Other notable increases included: Fatalities of those 65 years or older, up 14%; pedestrian deaths, up 13%; and fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck, up 13%.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the situation “a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together.”

Buttigieg said the Biden administration is taking “critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend,” citing the the agency’s previously announced National Roadway Safety Strategy and Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The NHTSA estimates traffic deaths rose in 2021 in 44 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The higher number of fatalities corresponded with an increase in miles driven on U.S. roadways compared with 2020. Preliminary data reported by the Federal Highway Administration shows that vehicle miles traveled in 2021 increased by about 325 billion miles, or about 11.2%, compared with 2020.

Despite the additional miles traveled, the fatality rate based on miles driven remained about the same from 2020. Estimates put the fatality rate for 2021 at 1.33 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 1.34 fatalities in 2020.

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