Black people represented the largest increase in traffic deaths last year than any other racial group, even as Americans drove less overall due to the pandemic, according to recently released data.
An estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020 — the largest projected number of deaths since 2007, according the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number of Black people who died in such crashes was up 23 percent from 2019, the largest increase in traffic deaths among racial groups, according to the administration’s report.
Norman Garrick, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Connecticut, said the numbers are saddening, but not surprising.
“Black people tend to be overrepresented as walkers in this country,” Garrick said. “This is not by choice. In many cases, Black folks cannot afford motor vehicles. And people that walk in this country tend to experience a much, much higher rate of traffic fatality. We’re talking eight to 10 times more. It’s a perfect storm of a lot of horrible forces.”
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This most likely represents yet another way the health crisis has had an outsize effect on Black people. Even in the early days of the pandemic, the National Safety Council found that the emptier roads were proving to be more deadly, with a 14 percent jump in roadway deaths per miles driven in March. And Black people are more likely to face traffic injuries in general; from 2010-2019, Black pedestrians were 82 percent more likely to be hit by drivers, according to a 2021 report from Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focused on urban development.
Calvin Gladney, president of Smart Growth America, said the pandemic has only exacerbated the longstanding problem. He said there are three major reasons Black people bear the brunt of roadway injuries: infrastructure, design and racism. Predominantly Black neighborhoods are less likely to have crosswalks, warning signs and other safety mechanisms, he said. And many high-speed highways are in or go through communities of color, thanks to a federal effort in the 1950s to modernize the nation’s roadways.
“These fatalities have been going upward for a decade,” Gladney said. “You go to Black and brown communities, you go to lower-income communities and you don’t see many sidewalks. You don’t see as many pedestrian crossings. The types of streets that go through Black and brown neighborhoods are like mini highways where the speed limit is 35 or 45. You see this disproportionately in Black and brown communities often because of race-based decisions of the past.”
Little to no infrastructure funding means those in Black neighborhoods live with poor roads, dangerous proximity to waste sites, little access to public transportation and more. Along with the systemic nature of this problem, Gladney pointed out that social racism also plays a role in the rising number of traffic fatalities. A 2017 study from the University of Nevada found that drivers are less likely to slow down or stop for Black pedestrians than they are for white ones.
Gladney said that efforts like President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, which includes efforts to make public transportation more accessible and improve road safety, are necessary, and that although the situation is dire “it’s fixable.”
He said small policy changes like lowering the speed limit in some areas could save hundreds of lives each year. Federal efforts like the 2021 Complete Streets Act — introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. — would ensure public roads are safe and accessible for multiple modes of travel.
“The pandemic illuminated issues that people have been ignoring,” Gladney added. “These are the same streets and the same roads that have always been there. If we have intentionality to get to racial equity and close the disparities, we actually can fix this."