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Published: Apr 26, 2023 15 min read

Nothing is more frightening for a driver or cyclist than the idea of an accident or, worse still, a fatal crash. Unfortunately, the roads have only gotten deadlier since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many theories as to why this is true: most have to do with the relaxed driving environment of the early pandemic, which may have led to more dangerous behavior on the road, like drinking and driving, texting while behind the wheel and not using turn signals.

Read on for information on car accident deaths, statistics and more.

What current car accident death statistics are saying

According to a Department of Transportation (DOT) study of 2020 traffic fatalities, road travel was at its lowest point in decades during 2020. In the interim, driving habits have gotten worse. On-road crashes were up 21% in 2021, which is the deadly reason your car insurance bill may rise.

These changes are not minor and suggest a pivot in public health and safety and American driving behaviors. Experts point to lax driving habits during the 2020 stay-at-home order, which resulted in far less congested roadways, as the cause of worsened driving habits.

Even so, there are some statistical outliers that may require a more introspective approach. For example, male fatalities in this same 2019-2020 period rose by 8.6% while female fatalities only increased by 1.9%. According to data collected by the Department of Transportation, men generally drive more miles than women but are also more likely to take greater risks, including driving without a seatbelt, speeding, or drinking and driving.

What are the chances of death in a car accident?

A national overview of motor vehicle accidents in 2020 reveals that a person had a 1 in 63 chance of getting in a car accident at the beginning of that year. This represents a decrease of 22% year-over-year since most people were not driving at that time. In fact, the total miles driven in 2020 was 11% lower than in 2019.

Nonetheless, in 2020, 38,824 people suffered a car accident resulting in death — that’s up 6.8% from 2019. Looking at this Bureau of Transportation Statistics spreadsheet, you can see that the average person had a 1.6% chance of dying in a car accident in 2020. Those numbers increased in the first quarter of 2021 and remained higher than they were before 2020 and the start of the pandemic. 2021’s 42,915 traffic fatalities made for a 16-year high.

The top risk factors for car accident fatalities

The Federal Highway Administration reports that vehicle miles traveled in 2021 increased by about 325 billion miles — around 11.2% over 2020. This suggests that part of the increase in risk is due to the dramatic differences in driver behavior in those two years. And while many causes of death have lowered from their first-quarter 2021 highs, they seem to have settled at a level that is still higher than 2019’s crashes.

The top five causes of most motor vehicle crash deaths are:

  • Speeding
  • Driving under the influence (DUI)
  • Distracted driving
  • Fatigued driving
  • Not using a seat belt

Notably, each of these is a choice made by a driver which resulted in their death and/or someone else's. This is why driver safety is more important than ever.

Drunk driving

The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is .08%: Anyone driving over that limit is guilty of a “de facto” DUI charge. DUI crashes caused 11,654 deaths in 2020, up 14% from 2019. There's a theory that this 14% jump is connected with higher sales and use of alcohol during the pandemic.

Respondents to a cross-sectional survey of 993 individuals reported they were consuming more drinks per day in April 2020 than they were in February 2020, before the enactment of stay-at-home orders. A greater proportion of the surveyed individuals reported going past recommended drinking limits and binge drinking. Citing this survey, a study by RTI International came to the conclusion that “There is an association among the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health response to it, changes in alcohol policy, and alcohol consumption.”

Alcohol consumption increased against the backdrop of the rise in DUI deaths. Deaths overall were up 12% during the nighttime and 9.5% on the weekend, which is an extreme jump. This also suggests more than a casual or circumstantial link to the pandemic.


Speeding is the act of driving above the established speed limit. It caused 11,258 deaths in 2020 — up 17% from the previous year — and in 2021, fatalities in speeding-related crashes rose another 5%. Experts have linked an increase in speeding to the absence of rush-hour traffic during the pandemic, which resulted in emptier roads tempting to stressed drivers.

Your probability of death by car accident is significantly higher when you or others don’t pay attention to speed limits. Higher speeds make it harder to react and lead to worse injuries when crashes occur. According to this report from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, speeding roughly triples the odds of being involved in a fatal or rear-fatal car crash.

Seat belt not worn

Unused seat belts accounted for 10,893 car accident deaths in 2020, up 14% from 2019. Seat belts reduce your risk of death by 45% and your risk of serious injury by 50%. You are thirty more times likely to be thrown from your vehicle in a crash if you aren't wearing a seat belt.

Always strap in, even in the back seat — and yes, even when it’s not legally required. Make sure children are secure in their child or booster seat and that the seat is suitable for their age. There is no substitute for the safety a seat belt can provide.

Distracted driving

Distracted driving includes any sort of activity that distracts the driver’s attention from the road, including cell phone use, and caused 3,142 fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2020 — almost a percentage point higher than in 2019. This number increased to 3,522 in 2021 despite advancements in handsfree and Bluetooth technology, which may have lowered distracted driving numbers somewhat.

Distraction isn't just about texting or emailing while driving (although you definitely shouldn't do those things). Eating and drinking or playing around with the stereo system can also take your attention away from what’s in front of you. Psychologists have even noted a correlation between thinking about a stressful day at work while driving and dangerous driving. Try to decompress before driving, avoid multitasking while behind the wheel and keep your eyes on the road at all times.

Driver fatigue

Fatigued driving impairs judgment, making driving more dangerous for everyone on the road. Drowsy driving was the cause of death in 633 of the 38,824 fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020. Car accidents due to driver fatigue were down 9.2% from the previous year, indicating that drowsy driving decreased — even if drunk driving increased at the same time.

Before driving, get a good night’s sleep and avoid medication that can make you drowsy. Do not push through legitimate exhaustion; even if you think you can stay awake, be aware that long, monotonous driving can have the same effect on your brain as if you fell asleep. Consider employing alertness maintaining tasks to counteract this: for example, one study found that listening to trivia questions helped long-distance truck drivers be more alert.

How to seek compensation for a car accident death

When you lose someone to a car accident, the last thing you want to think about is money. But there are legitimate concerns you may want to consider. For instance, funeral and medical costs are a heavy burden.

There are a few avenues of recourse, any or all of which a survivor or family might pursue. You may file a wrongful death suit against the person who caused the accident, possibly file a claim against their insurance or file a claim on the deceased's life insurance.

Read below for how car accident death compensation payouts are generally handled and best practice recommendations. Note that the average payout for car accident deaths is not readily available, as they are each unique and decided on a case-by-case, lawyer-informed or insurance-informed basis. Depending on the fault status of your state, fault assigned and legal judgments on pain and suffering compensation can vary greatly.

Filing an insurance claim

The beneficiary of the insurance policy, or their representative, will need to contact the policy agent. They will require paperwork, including the death certificate, to pay out your claim. The death benefit — the amount survivors will receive from a life insurance policy in the event of accidental death — is defined in the policy, which your agent or agency can help you understand.

If you file a claim against the other party’s insurance, you may need to exhaust the victim’s liability coverage first. If you’re in a no-fault state (like Florida, New York or Pennsylvania), then each driver’s insurance is used to pay for their own injuries before any other claims are filed. This is why personal injury protection (PIP) insurance, also called "no-fault" insurance for this reason, is required in those states. "At-fault" states, on the other hand, require the insurance of the driver at fault to pay for up to 100% of the medical costs resulting from the accident.

Even in cases of death, liability and other forms of insurance come into play before any other damages can be paid. Three kinds of fault may be assessed:

  • A state with what's called contributory negligence removes the right of a party to recover damages if they are judged even 1% responsible for the accident.
  • A state with so-called pure comparative negligence allows for all parties in a crash to recover damages up to their percentage of fault. For example, if you are judged to be 30% at fault and the total damages to all parties are $100,000, you would be able to recover up to $70,000.
  • A state with modified comparative negligence, on the other hand, combines the two approaches, saying that the party responsible for 50% or more of the accident (51% in some states, such as Texas) is no longer able to recover damages.

These are also the ways that damages will be covered in situations where the damage includes a driver's, passenger's or child's fatality.

Filing a lawsuit

You can file a wrongful death suit on behalf of the family of the deceased. These can only occur in situations where the victim, had they lived, would have been able to sue for personal injury. It’s a civil suit that entitles survivors to a financial remedy for their emotional and financial damage due to the loss.

To file a lawsuit, you’ll want access to an experienced vehicle accident lawyer. They’ll need your insurance paperwork and estate documents, including the will, medical bills and proof of funeral costs. (Look here for information on finding the best truck accident lawyer or the best motorcycle accident lawyer if you feel a wrongful death car accident settlement is appropriate regarding your loss in those cases.)

Compensation for death in a car accident ruled a wrongful death is a form of personal injury filed by the family of the deceased. It can be based on lost income or any future inheritance, emotional distress and loss of companionship or a handful of other damages, such as “household services” the deceased will no longer be able to perform.

In a wrongful death claim, you would need to show proof that the other party both caused the victim’s death and should have reasonably foreseen that death was a predictable result of their actions, misbehavior or failure to act. It’s also possible you’ll be filing for punitive damages, which pay out only in very specific circumstances:

  • If the person at fault is reckless and outrageous
  • If the person at fault has actual intent to cause injury or fraud
  • If the person at fault is motivated by spite and ill will

Most personal injury and wrongful death suits are judged based on “ordinary negligence,” which is carelessness that’s not motivated by ill will or bad intent. In such a case, the injured party is eligible to seek compensation through a civil lawsuit for costs associated with the accident and for the pain, suffering, and mental anguish stemming from the injury or death.

Do your part to keep our roads safe

Road traffic crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the United States for people under 55. This has become more prevalent after the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many of us developed dangerous driving habits that remain to this day. Speeding, driving under the influence or while exhausted and texting behind the wheel all contribute to the dangers we face every day on the road.

Drive predictably: stay under the speed limit, use your turn signals and respect stop signs and red lights. Remember to wear your seatbelt and make sure you are well rested before going for a drive. Above all, keep your eyes on the road at all times, as even minor distractions could be the trigger of a fatal or near-fatal car accident.

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