Special Report

The Deadliest Year For Car Wrecks Since Seat Belts Became Law

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2021, a 10.5% increase from 2020 and the most since 2005. These fatalities include pedestrians and cyclists. (Not always fatal, these are the 20 car accidents Americans get in the most.)

The alarming spike in fatalities correlates with an estimated 11.2% increase in travel on U.S. roads and highways in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The NHTSA has also reported that 9,560 people died in motor vehicle accidents in the first three months of 2022, a 7% increase from the same period last year. Still, this is low compared to 1966, the deadliest year for car wrecks since records began.

Today, fewer people in the U.S. die from car crashes than they do from guns, but that was not always the case. Firearm deaths have risen (guns became the leading cause of death among American children for the first time in 2020) while automobile-related fatalities have declined thanks to the introduction of safety features like seat belts, airbags, and improved vehicle design. 

To determine the deadliest year for car wrecks, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the NHTSA. Years from 1968 to 2020 were ranked by the number of auto fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers. Supplemental data also came from the NHTSA.

Seat belts became mandatory in all new vehicles sold in the United States in 1968, the second-highest year for automotive-related fatalities since records began in 1966. However, it was not mandatory for all drivers and passengers in cars to actually wear them, and it took decades before laws made usage commonplace across the country. And it is likely not a coincidence that over the years, fatality rates have declined.

As seat belts became ubiquitous, the number of lives saved by seat belts jumped. For example, in 1966, the NHTSA estimated that only 195 lives were saved by wearing seat belts. By 2005, more than 17,000 lives were saved by seat belts. (Like nearly everything else, car accidents and fatalities vary by state. These are the deadliest states to drive.)

Over the decades, fewer Ameircans have died in vehicle-related crashes. In 2008, the annual rate of overall traffic fatalities fell below 18 deaths per 100,000 licensed drivers for the first time. In 2014, that rate hit a record low of 15.3 per 100,000. This is a huge improvement from the 1960s and early ‘70s, when there were more than 45 fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers.

Here is the deadliest year for car wrecks.

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