More people are dying in car crashes in the pandemic even though commuting to work has decreased, a troubling trend that is now getting an additional boost in federal aid.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, scheduled to be signed by President Biden on Monday, creates new grant programs for states to pay for things like software to upgrade or establish highway safety databases, hiring more cops and driving safety specialists, and adding distracted driving awareness to state driver’s license exams.
A number of programs eligible to receive federal aid are specifically aimed at monitoring intoxicated drivers, including: establishing drunk driving courts, investing in case management software, and buying technologies that better monitor or treat impaired drivers (such as oral swabs and interlock ignition devices for cars).
The bill also gives priority to states that have distracted driving laws and states with alcohol-ignition interlock laws for those convicted of drunk driving.
The new funding comes available as traffic deaths are climbing even as Americans are driving less. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 8,730 people died in car crashes during the first three months of 2021 — a more than 10% jump over deaths during the same period last year.
That’s on top of a 2020 where traffic deaths hit 38,680 — the highest yearly total in more than a decade and a more than 7% increase over 2019.
The culprits? Drunk driving and other risky behavior on the roads. Deaths in 2020 involving motorists not wearing seat belts were up 15%, speeding related deaths increased by 10% and fatal crashes involving alcohol rose 9%.
Data also suggests a higher-than-average number of serious crashes last year involved drug or alcohol use, according to Reuters.
Some experts say that the more open roads last year made some drivers feel like they could get away with riskier behavior because they thought police would be less likely to issue tickets during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Acting NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement the agency was “working closely with our safety partners to address risky driving behaviors such as speeding, impaired driving, and failing to buckle up.”
Other Federal Road Safety Grants
The bill’s National Priority Safety Programs (Sec. 24105) also allocates grants for additional initiatives, including:
- Free car seats and safety education for parents and caregivers in low income or underserved populations.
- Technology that lets drivers know when they are approaching a disabled vehicle, or when an emergency response vehicle is nearby.
- Infrastructure to better protect non-motorists, such as bike lane barriers.