Did the Pandemic Make Us Worse Drivers?

Traffic fatalities have catapulted since the start of the pandemic. Here’s what that means for your car insurance.
Ryan Brady
By Ryan Brady 
Published
Edited by Lacie Glover

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If you get the sense you’ve been seeing more bad accidents on the road lately, you probably have. Crashes claimed an estimated 42,795 lives on U.S. roadways in 2022, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a fairly dramatic increase over 2019 by more than 6,000 deaths

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts. Accessed Jun 22, 2023.
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Though traffic on U.S. roadways plummeted in the first year of the pandemic, roadway deaths did the opposite. Traffic fatalities experienced double-digit growth four quarters in a row beginning in the second half of 2020.

And death rates haven’t really improved since then. “Driving is back up almost to normal, but fatalities are continuing to go up,” says David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

This is a paradox that spurred U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to call it a “national crisis of traffic deaths”

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What’s to blame?

A deadly cocktail of speed, carelessness and mass

There isn’t one contributing factor to the rise in roadway deaths, but many.

In the early days of the pandemic, open roads and short-staffed police forces invited bad driving habits — habits that have been hard for drivers to break, according to IIHS.

One of them is speeding. According to LexisNexis’ 2023 U.S. Auto Insurance Trends Report, major speeding violations were up 20% in 2022 compared to 2019

LexisNexis. U.S. Auto Insurance Trends Report. Accessed Jun 22, 2023.
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Other contributing factors in the rise of traffic deaths include more people driving drunk and fewer people wearing seat belts. But the cars themselves may also be to blame.

While newer vehicles sold today are typically safer to drive than models from previous years, they’re also bigger — 2021 models were the heaviest ever, on average, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Environmental Protection Agency. The 2022 EPA Automotive Trends Report. Accessed Jun 22, 2023.
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And there are a lot of them on the road. According to J.D. Power, 80% of new car sales in 2022 came from trucks and SUVs. “If you're a bicyclist or pedestrian struck by an SUV or truck, you're more likely to suffer serious and fatal injuries than if you're struck by a car,” Zuby says.

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What the rise in traffic fatalities means for you

Aside from the morbid thought that there’s a slightly greater chance you'll be involved in a serious car accident, how else might the rise in traffic deaths impact you? One way is your wallet.

More severe accidents drive up auto insurance costs, says Scott Holeman, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. Insurers, already battered by inflation, financial losses from natural disasters and tough regulatory environments in some large states, are now facing greater claim payouts from car accidents. According to the LexisNexis report, claim severity, or the total cost of claims, has increased by 35% since 2019 for liability claims and 40% for collision claims.

And rising costs for insurers mean rising costs for drivers. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the cost of car insurance rose 17% in May compared to the year prior, continuing a nine-month run of double-digit cost hikes

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Here are a few things to consider:

Make sure you’re not underinsured

The last thing you want is to find out you don’t have enough insurance if you ever need to make a claim. That’s why now’s a good time to chat with your insurance agent or review your car insurance declaration page to check your coverage.

In particular, take a close look at your liability coverage. This pays for other people's medical bills or property damage from accidents you cause. With the cost of cars, repair labor and medical care all at record-high levels, your liability insurance limits might not be high enough to cover all medical costs or damages after a bad accident. If that happens, you might be on the hook to pay the balance.

“Nobody wants to read their insurance policies,” Holeman empathizes. “But it’s an important component to your financial well-being.”

Shop around

Insurance rate hikes are normal. But if they seem a lot higher than when you originally signed the dotted line, consider other options. “The good news about insurance is that a lot of people want your business,” Holeman says.

Make sure you do your due diligence when courting other insurers. Check customer complaint and satisfaction ratings, and compare car insurance quotes using similar coverage amounts to make a more informed decision. And don’t forget to ask about discounts.

Practice safe driving habits

Perhaps the best financial move you can make is to practice safe driving habits. “It only takes a couple of seconds for something really bad to happen, especially when people are driving at faster speeds,” Holeman warns.

Here are a few simple things you can do to stay safe behind the wheel:

  • Follow safety laws. This includes wearing a seat belt, following the rules of the road and not binge-watching your favorite show on your phone. 

  • Make sure your car’s in good shape. Make a habit of checking your tires, wiper blades and brake pads to prevent sudden malfunctions on the road — and don’t ignore your check engine light. 

  • Limit distractions. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or download a safe driving app like LifeSaver so you don’t feel tempted to check every ping and ding your cell makes. While you’re at it, save the burger and fries you picked up for after you reach your destination, or just eat in the parking lot.

  • Take advantage of new car technology. Next time you go car shopping, consider adding driver assistance technologies like automatic braking and blindspot warning to your list of must-have features.

For more driving safety tips, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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