Traffic and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a result of extended stress that is prompting more Americans to engage in risky behavior, according to Shannon Frattaroli, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.
“We’re living in a time when there's great uncertainty and big questions about our society and our democracy,” Frattaroli says. “A lot of what the pandemic has revealed is our weaknesses and problems in our society, and they've been tremendously exacerbated over the past couple of years. … So, all of these factors are coming together and making life very difficult for everyone.”
Even though fewer people were driving during the first year of the pandemic, more than 38,000 people died on U.S. roads during that time — the highest number since 2007.
“Fatal vehicle crashes are the epidemic within the pandemic,” Mark Chung, a vice president at the National Safety Council, told VOA in an email. “This increase is a deadly trend that started during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and negates more than 15 years of progress in preventing death on U.S. roads.”
WATCH: Why US Traffic Deaths, Drug Overdoses Skyrocketed During the Pandemic
In 2020, the number of kilometers driven dropped 13%, but fatalities involving people not wearing seat belts increased 15%, and alcohol-related traffic deaths were up 9%, according to the NSC.
"Think about what life is like now. There's a lot of stressors that we're facing. There's a lot of uncertainty that we're facing. So, that impacts how we approach the road, how we drive,” Frattaroli says. “[They think], ‘Does it matter as much that I'm diligent about buckling my seat belt every time I get into the car? Does it matter if I'm drinking and driving when there seems to be so much wrong with the world right now?’”
The traffic death rate for Black people is the most dire, rising more than three times faster than the death rate overall. The NSC says drivers are less likely to yield to Black pedestrians and cyclists than they are to white pedestrians and cyclists. Black pedestrians also wait longer for cars to yield to them than white pedestrians.
About 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a record high for a single year and a 30% jump over the previous year.
“COVID-19 exacerbated many issues that impact mental health and substance use, including isolation, anxiety, uncertainty … loss of employment, stress caused by financial, food, housing or child/family care instabilities and more,” Jenny Burke, a senior director at the NSC, told VOA in an email. “Trauma increases risk for developing mental health issues and substance use disorders.”
Drug overdose fatalities also might be higher because people have had less access to treatment and other assistance during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the stigma related to drug use might have prevented some people from seeking whatever help might be available.
“We know that substance abuse increased during the pandemic,” says clinical psychologist Maria Espinola. “A lot of people use alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress that we're experiencing. So, some people were already having issues prior to the pandemic that got worse. And then some people who had no issues before experienced such high levels of stress that they used substances to cope.”
Getting back on track
There are steps that can be taken to mitigate traffic and overdose fatalities, according to the experts.
For example, funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could be used to create transportation systems designed for the future, rather than the last century, that take human error into consideration.
“Systems that take into account the fact that humans will be driving cars, riding bicycles, walking down the street distracted,” Frattaroli says. “And we need to make sure that we design our roadways and our communities in a way to minimize the harm that can come from predictable human mistakes.”
This could include replacing accident-prone, four-way intersections with circles, or roundabouts, which make drivers slow down and reduce the likelihood of the most serious types of intersection crashes, like head-on collisions.
Other options include making certain that highways have dividers that prevent head-on collisions, and finding ways to separate pedestrians and cyclists from vehicles.
Regarding drug overdoses, the NSC is looking to employers to fill the gap by extending job benefits to include increased treatment and recovery services.
“The quarantines and shutdowns provided more opportunities for drug misuse, but we will not know the full impact the pandemic has had on drug misuse until past its end,” Burke says. “NSC implores employers to work with us to seek training and implement programs to identify and combat opioid misuse and other forms of impairment in the workplace.”