An estimated 38,680 people were killed on U.S. roadways in 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed today. This is not just a 7 percent increase from the previous year — it’s the highest number recorded since 2007, it comes after years of (modest) declines, and it happened even as Americans drove 13 percent fewer miles than they had the year before. Although preliminary data had been released weeks ago hinting at the rising carnage, today’s news confirmed what many safety advocates had warned leaders about as the pandemic flushed vehicles from cities: Stay-at-home orders resulted in emptier streets, and emptier streets invited drivers to speed, and speed is the single-largest determining factor of roadway fatalities.
But there is a little bit of good news trailing behind this terrible statistic: For the first time in history, comprehensive and meaningful reform is being proposed in New York State, as a coalition of traffic-safety advocates are supporting eight bills before legislators, including proposed laws that would tighten blood-alcohol limits, allow speed cameras to operate day and night, and create a first-of-its-kind pedestrian-safety rating system for SUVs. These are common-sense laws that, if passed, would start to reduce traffic fatalities right away, says Amy Cohen, co-founder of Families for Safe Streets. “Behind every single number, there’s a life.”
One of the proposed state bills is Sammy’s Law, named for Cohen’s son, who was killed by a van driver on a Park Slope street when he was 12. That law would permit New York City to lower its speed limits below 25 miles per hour, something the city is not allowed to do without state permission, as detailed by a report by Transportation Alternatives, which led a group of advocates on the successful 2014 campaign to pass the city’s last speed-limit reduction. Cohen has spent the past week traveling 1,000 miles throughout the state, one mile for each New York State resident killed in crashes each year. On Friday, she’ll be at City Hall, standing alongside other New Yorkers who have lost family members to vehicle crashes, hoping to appeal to city leadership in a place where traffic deaths, which only three years ago reached a historic low, spiked on 2020’s wide-open streets. If the systems proposed by these bills had already been in place, she says, a lot of those lives might have been saved. “There are proven solutions, and we know they work,” says Cohen. “Why should I have to go on the road for three days with a coffin just to get our leaders to take action?”