Kansas highway fatality rate surges despite fewer miles traveled in 2020

COVID-19 cuts traffic density, allowing risk takers to push safety limits

The Kansas Department of Transportation reports the rate of traffic fatalities in Kanssa increased from January throuugh September 2020 compared to the first nine months of 2019, despite a 10.2% reduction in highway miles traveled in the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Department of Transportation reports the rate of traffic fatalities in Kanssa increased from January throuugh September 2020 compared to the first nine months of 2019, despite a 10.2% reduction in highway miles traveled in the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The rate of traffic fatalities on Kansas highways surged in the first nine months of 2020 despite dramatic reduction in miles traveled because of temporary stay-at-home mandates and ongoing health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said Thursday.

The number of vehicle miles traveled on Kansas highways from January through September plummeted 10.2% compared to the same period in 2019. But the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled in Kansas increased during the nine-month period, escalating to 1.52 in 2020 from 1.29 in 2019.

“Vehicle miles traveled is going down, yet fatalities are going up,” said Chris Herrick, director of planning and development at the Kansas Department of Transportation. “Everybody is trying to get their hands and arms wrapped around why is vehicle miles traveled going down and fatality rates increasing.”

He said the primary culprit appeared to be motorists taking advantage of highways less densely packed with cars and trucks to drive at excessive speeds. He said some pushed the envelope by accelerating beyond 100 mph on Kansas roadways posted with limits that range from 55 mph on two-lane highways to 75 mph on stretches of turnpike and freeway.

“Speed kills. The faster you go, the more force there is and when you do get in a wreck, the worse the wreck is,” Herrick said. “The risky-behavior people are out and about, and they are the ones more likely to speed. You have less traffic on the roads, so you have more ability to speed.”

The total number of Kansas highway traffic fatalities — not just the rate — increased during the March to September months in which COVID-19 has imposed the greatest impact on residents of the state. KDOT said there were 258 deaths on highways in Kansas during those seven months of 2020, an increase from 254 during that same period in 2019.

That 1.6% increase in Kansas traffic deaths occurred despite significant reduction in vehicle miles covered during those seven months. Comparing 2020 to 2019, KDOT officials said, vehicle miles driven in Kansas was down by 13.5% in March, 36.7% in April, 19.5% in May, 9.7% in June, 7.3% in July, 4.7% in August and 4.8% in September.

The National Safety Council’s estimate based on the first six months of 2020 data from all 50 states indicated there was a 20% jump in the U.S. death rate, which is a key indicator of how safely drivers used the roadways. The shift between January and June 2020, compared to the same six-month period in 2019, represented the highest surge for a six-month period since 1999, NSC said.

NSC, a nonproft organization dedicated to reducing the number of preventable deaths and injuries, said the national increase in fatalities came despite a 17% drop in the number of miles driven between January and June. The total number of U.S. deaths was up 1% from the six-month total in 2019.

“Because of COVID-19 and states’ shelter-in-place orders earlier this year, the country should have reaped a safety benefit from less traffic,” said Lorraine Martin, NSC’s president and chief executive officer. “Instead, our soaring rate of deaths speaks to our need to improve safety on our roads. Clearly, we must work harder as a society to reverse this trend, especially since the pandemic is not nearly over.”

In June, when many states ended three straight months of quarantine, the number of miles driven remained 13% lower than the previous year, but both the fatality rates and the overall number of deaths skyrocketed in the United States.

The number of deaths was up 17% in June, NSC said, while the rate of death per 100 million miles driven jumped 34.4%.