It’s a tough year all around, and the bad news keeps on coming. The latest numbers on traffic fatalities confirm a troubling pattern that first surfaced in March: Fatal accidents are rising. Emptier roads, it turns out, are not necessarily safer.

The data

For March, the National Safety Council reported a 14 percent increase in traffic fatalities – despite a nearly 10 percent drop in total miles driven. Since then, the fatality rate per mile has remained elevated nationwide. The same is true in North Carolina.

The good news? North Carolina has seen a statewide drop in total crashes. The overall accident rate is lower than both 2019 and the past five-year average. Urban areas – particularly Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham – all saw sharp drops in accident rates starting in March.

Why more deaths?

Multiple factors may be at play. One possible culprit is speeding. North Carolina drivers are among the worst in the nation for speeding-related fatalities, with speed being a factor in nearly one-third of fatal accidents. The open roads create a greater temptation to speed, and a thinner patrol presence means more people get away with it.

Alcohol and drugs also contribute. Higher stress levels from health concerns, job loss and the economic downturn have driven many to substance abuse. Opioid addiction and marijuana use are growing. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 67 percent of drivers who suffered serious or fatal injuries had alcohol or drugs in their systems.

Another explanation? More trucks on the road. Consumers are turning to online shopping more than ever before, leading to a shipping boom. The numbers bear this theory out. Fatal accidents involving heavy trucks were up 45 percent in May alone, according to the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.

Looking ahead

Winter weather may mean even more fatal traffic accidents, especially in northern states. However, with fewer people traveling over the holidays, holiday-related traffic fatalities are projected to drop. That’s one silver lining worthy of holiday cheer.

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