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Preventing Chicago Traffic Deaths in 2021 by Guest Blogger, Benjamin de Young

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Benjamin de Young is a Master of Public Health candidate studying epidemiology at Northwestern University. He is interested in the prevention of injury and violence in the Chicagoland area. He works with preventable injury and violence frequently as an Emergency Department technician in the AdvocateAurora Health system.

Title: Preventing Chicago Traffic Deaths in 2021

Going out? Grab your mask--but take your foot off the gas. Americans took fewer trips and drove fewer miles in the first half of 2020 than in previous years1. However, the rate of fatal motor vehicle crashes in America increased by a much as 16 percent in June1. In Illinois alone, around 1,166 people died on the roadways in 20202. This is the highest death total in over a decade, according to IDOT2.

Driving during a pandemic is strange. Stay-at-home and work-from-home orders have relaxed the need to drive every day for many people. However, without driving in the daily routine, more people are taking risks when they drive3. Wide-open roads and restlessness have led to higher rates of speeding, with many drivers going 10+ mph over the speed limit—to speeds over 100mph. These speeds cause more severe and deadly crashes5. The number of crashes with impaired drivers (from alcohol or drugs) increased too, and more crashes had passengers thrown out of the vehicle4.

Just like masks and social distancing can prevent COVID-19, traffic fatalities can be prevented by using seatbelts and slowing down5. Temptations to speed—like an open interstate, social pressure, or simple thrill-seeking—are common. Overcoming these temptations is crucial to stopping traffic deaths.

Here are three of the main causes of fatal crashes in 2020, and how to prevent them in 2021:

Cause #1: Speeding.

Average speeds in urban areas increased from 2019 to 2020, by as much as 22%6,7. For reference, an average speed increase of 10% is associated with more accidents and more severe injuries from those accidents. America more than doubled that total during the summer, as speeds increased on both interstates and regular roads8.

Deaths from speeding resemble the shocking deaths from COVID-19: drivers can be killed or injured regardless of their age, health, or experience9. Unexpected cars and pedestrians entering the roadway can cause speeding drivers to crash violently. The time it takes the driver to maneuver a car to safety is shortened significantly by speeding, and the danger increases when speeding drivers are impaired or distracted. Also, cars can fail at high speeds, due to road conditions, tire problems, or brake failures. All of these can result in catastrophic crashes10.

The city of Chicago uses speed cameras to prevent speeding. In 2021, they plan to lower the speed necessary to give out tickets, to 6 mph over the speed limit3. This is a good step, but lowering speed limits citywide will likely lead to fewer deaths without excess ticketing9,11. More public messages such as billboards are also necessary to remind drivers to slow down. These can be placed next to interstates and high-speed state routes most responsible for crashes, like Lake Shore Drive and I-94, which tend to have many speeding drivers.

The takeaway: Slow down, even when the road is wide open. Tell family and friends to take their time when driving. When a car speeds past you, don’t increase the risk of a crash by joining them.

Cause #2: Seat Belt Use.

Drivers and passengers who use seat belts are less likely to be ejected from the car and suffer severe injuries during collisions12. During the first few months of the pandemic, drivers who got in serious or fatal crashes were not using seatbelts over 28% of the time12. Before the pandemic, this number was less than 22%: more people were using seat belts, and more people survived their crashes with fewer injuries12. Similarly, passengers were unbelted 41% of the time during the pandemic, versus 25% before the pandemic12.

This unprecedented decrease in seat belt use, along with an increase in speeding, helps explain why so many people died on the roads in 2020. Drivers are not only speeding, they are speeding without any restraints to protect them12. This is unwise; a seat belt is a proven life-saving device when used correctly.

The takeaway: Wear a seat belt every time. Make all passengers buckle up, too. Experience and health do not matter much. Make children use car seats. A high-speed crash is dangerous to everyone involved.

Cause #3: Impaired Driving.

Drug and alcohol use rose significantly in the early months of the pandemic4. As a result, nearly 30% of drivers who got in serious or fatal crashes had alcohol in their systems12. This number reached 26% for those with cannabinoids in their systems, and over 13% for those who had taken opioids, powerful painkiller drugs that can seriously impair judgement and increase drowsiness12.

Nearly 64% of all drivers--regardless of whether they got in a crash--tested positive for alcohol or drugs, as opposed to 51% before the pandemic4,12. This huge increase is important: those who consume alcohol or drugs are much less likely to slow down and use seat belts--the first two causes of fatal crashes listed here!

The takeaway: use alcohol, marijuana, and drugs wisely. Have a designated driver when drinking heavily or using drugs. Call an Uber to get you home, if necessary. Driving impaired is not worth the danger to yourself and others.

As Vision Zero Chicago [LINK] says, “Even one life lost in a traffic crash is unacceptable.”13

Stay alive in traffic this 2021. Slow down, buckle up, and use substances responsibly.


1National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2020, December). Early estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities for the first 9 months (Jan–Sep) of 2020 (Crash•Stats Brief Statistical Summary. Report No. DOT HS 813 053). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

2Illinois Department of Transportation. Batty, S. (n.d.). Roadway Safety. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from website: roadway/index

3Bonilla, L. (2021, February 12). More people died on Illinois roads last year than since 2007. Is the pandemic to blame? Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

4Thomas, F. D., Berning, A., Darrah, J., Graham, L., Blomberg, R., Griggs, C., Crandall, M., Schulman, C., Kozar, R., Neavyn, M., Cunningham, K., Ehsani, J., Fell, J., Whitehill, J., Babu, K., Lai, J., and Rayner, M. (2020, October). Drug and alcohol prevalence in seriously and fatally injured road users before and during the COVID-19 public health emergency (Report No. DOT HS 813 018). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. dot/50941

5Kuntzman, G. (2020, August 31). Report: 2020 roadway deaths are way higher than normal. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from website:

6Pishue, B. (2020, December). COVID-19 effect on collisions on interstates and highways in the US. INRIX Research.

7Wagner, E., Atkins, R., Berning, A., Robbins, A., Watson, C., & Anderle, J. (2020, October). Examination of the traffic safety environment during the second quarter of 2020: Special report (Report No. DOT HS 813 011). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

8Elvik, R. (2005). Speed and road safety: Synthesis of evidence from evaluation studies. Transportation Research Record, 1908(1), 59–69. 0361198105190800108

9Inada, H., Ashraf, L., & Campbell, S. (2021). COVID-19 lockdown and fatal motor vehicle collisions due to speed-related traffic violations in Japan: a time-series study. Injury Prevention: Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 27(1), 98–100.

10Hussain, Q., Feng, H., Grzebieta, R., Brijs, T., & Olivier, J. (2019). The relationship between impact speed and the probability of pedestrian fatality during a vehicle-pedestrian crash: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Accident; Analysis and Prevention, 129, 241–249.

11Bornioli, A., Bray, I., Pilkington, P., & Parkin, J. (2020). Effects of city-wide 20 mph (30km/hour) speed limits on road injuries in Bristol, UK. Injury Prevention: Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 26(1), 85–88.

12Office of Behavioral Safety Research. (2021, January). Update to special reports on traffic safety During the COVID-19 public health emergency: Third quarter data. (Report No. DOT HS 813 069). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

13Vision Zero Chicago. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from website:

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