Fewer people drove on Michigan roads in 2020. So why did more die in traffic crashes?

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

More than 1,000 people died in traffic crashes in Michigan last year, according to Michigan State Police, suggesting that with fewer people on the roads during the pandemic, crashes were more deadly, a traffic expert said.

In total, 1,083 people died in traffic crashes in 2020, up 10% from 2019. The rise came even though there were about 18% fewer people on the road, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation, largely because of COVID-19 restrictions that kept people home.

Less traffic likely helped to contribute to fewer accidents, experts say. There were 245,432 crashes last year, down 21.9% from the year before and the lowest level since at least 2010, historical data show. 

Fewer people also were injured in traffic crashes. People injured in crashes dropped 18.6% to 60,986 in 2020 from 74,963 in 2019.

Despite that, traffic fatalities in 2020 hit the highest number since 2007, when 1,084 people died, indicating more severe crashes, said Carol Flannagan, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

"It's what I like to call bonkers," Flannagan said. "When you look at it from a 20,000-foot view, it means each individual crash was substantially more deadly, each individual crash had a substantially higher risk of someone dying compared to in the past."

The institute is awaiting final data from 2020, but it will study what factors may have led to the increase in fatalities, especially given the drop in overall traffic.

Some say those on the roads may have changed their behavior, Flannagan said. That could mean people drove faster or without seat belt or helmets, or more were driving impaired, she said.

"It's not that all the least safe drivers were out doing crazy driving," Flannagan said. "It's not that simple. We know that a bunch of crashes didn't happen, but the ones that did had a much higher likelihood of killing people."

Michigan isn't alone in having had deadlier accidents last year. Michael L. Prince, director of the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, said in a news release that most states are seeing a similar trend of fewer accidents but more fatalities.

Across the country, the Federal Highway Administration estimates 2020 traffic fell about 13.2%. The non-profit National Safety Council estimated that even with the decline, deaths rose about 8% nationally. The council estimates about 42,000 motor vehicle deaths in 2020.

Flannagan and her team will go through the 2020 crash data submitted by police departments to determine the causes of crashes. They'll use sophisticated models to distinguish between random happenings and patterns, she said.

The rise in fatalities despite fewer people on the road is one of the things she's most interested in understanding. She compared it with the time around the Great Recession starting in 2008, which was the last time traffic dropped so notably. When traffic dropped then, she said, fatalities dropped even more. 

"What we want to understand is the best predictors that may keep people safe," she said. "Obviously, a recession is not a very good safety program. But we can understand what can be safer in the future."

As of Wednesday, 337 people have died in traffic accidents in 2021, according to Michigan State Police. Preliminary data show fatalities in 2021 are "definitely higher than they were at this point of the year in both 2020 and 2019," Kendall Wingrove, a spokesperson for Michigan State Police, said in an email.