In an alarming trend, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced that Black people are substantially more likely to die in traffic accidents than white men or women. Even during peak quarantine, when people were driving less due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Black deaths moved in the opposite direction, increasing significantly.
Char Adams of NBC News reported that “an estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020 — the largest projected number of deaths since 2007.” Disturbingly, she noted that “the number of Black people who died in such crashes was up 23% from 2019, the largest increase in traffic deaths among [all] racial groups.”
In an interview with Adams, Norman Garrick, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Connecticut, said that while the numbers were alarming, he wasn’t surprised by them.
“Black people tend to be overrepresented as walkers in this country,” Garrick said. “This is not by choice. In many cases, Black folks cannot afford motor vehicles. And people that walk in this country tend to experience a much, much higher rate of traffic fatalities. We’re talking eight to 10 times more. It’s a perfect storm of a lot of horrible forces.”
Garrick and academics in his field say the increasing trend of Black deaths due to auto accidents is yet another example of the ongoing and persisting systemic racism in the country — and also another way the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color in the United States.
“Even in the early days of the pandemic, the National Safety Council found that the emptier roads were proving to be more deadly, with a 14% jump in roadway deaths per miles driven in March,” Adams reported. “Black people are more likely to face traffic injuries in general; from 2010-2019, Black pedestrians were 82% more likely to be hit by drivers, according to a 2021 report from Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focused on urban development.”
Calvin Gladney, president of Smart Growth America, told Adams that COVID-19 exacerbated a trio of problems the country has long struggled to overcome: infrastructure problems, poor design and planning choices and ongoing racial division.
According to Gladney, Black neighborhoods tend to have fewer crosswalks, warning signs and other mechanisms designed to enhance public safety. Combine that with the number of high-speed highways that cross through communities of color, and you have a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
“These fatalities have been going upward for a decade,” Gladney told NBC. “You go to Black and brown communities, you go to lower-income communities, and you don’t see many sidewalks. You don’t see as many pedestrian crossings. The types of streets that go through Black and brown neighborhoods are like mini-highways where the speed limit is 35 or 45. You see this disproportionately in Black and brown communities often because of race-based decisions of the past.”
In addition to dangerous roads, Adams said close proximity to waste sites and reduced access to public transportation all contribute to auto-accident fatalities for Black men and women. Gladney also blamed the problem on social racism, citing a 2017 study from the University of Nevada that found “drivers are less likely to slow down or stop for Black pedestrians than they are for white ones.”
In addition to work and effort, however, Gladney told Adams that he thinks this is one problem that can be turned around with increased awareness and funding.
“The pandemic illuminated issues that people have been ignoring,” he said. “These are the same streets and the same roads that have always been there. If we have intentionality to get to racial equity and close the disparities, we actually can fix this.”