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Safety advocates detail safety measures as traffic fatalities reach a 16-year high

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The number of traffic fatalities across the country continues to rise. In fact, traffic deaths hit a 16-year high in 2021, even though people were driving less because of the pandemic. Safety advocates say most states are not doing enough to protect drivers, passengers or pedestrians, and they're urging leaders to implement more safety measures. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing at the intersection of Illinois Routes 22 and 21, also known as Half Day Road and Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago's northern suburbs. It's a place where local police say they are increasingly seeing drivers going at higher and higher speeds.

CHRISTOPHER COVELLI: You know, we've really seen an increase - the onset of the pandemic, through the pandemic and even post-pandemic, we've seen a lot of increased speeds, a lot of reckless drivers, a lot of individuals just excessively going fast on the roadways.

SCHAPER: Christopher Covelli is a deputy chief with the Lake County, Ill., Sheriff's Office.

COVELLI: Just a couple weeks ago, we arrested somebody who was driving intoxicated. And they were going three times the speed limit.

SCHAPER: Three times?

COVELLI: Yeah, about 120 in a 40-mile-an-hour zone.

SCHAPER: Oh, my God.

COVELLI: Yeah, just flying.

SCHAPER: And Covelli says those higher speeds are having devastating consequences as serious traffic crashes here are up. It's a trend that mirrors what's happening all across the country. Federal statistics show that nearly 43,000 people died on the nation's roads and highways last year, up almost 20% from 2019. And it's the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2005. Millions more people are injured each year, even though cars are getting safer. Cathy Chase is president of the group Advocates for Highway and Traffic Safety (ph).

CATHY CHASE: This horrific toll must serve as a blaring wake-up call to policymakers at all levels of government to take action to reverse this upward trajectory.

SCHAPER: Advocates for Highway and Traffic Safety has released its 20th Annual Roadmap to Safety report, detailing more than a dozen traffic safety measures they're encouraging state legislatures, Congress and regulatory agencies to enact. They also grade each state on their progress in adopting safety recommendations. Only five - Washington, Oregon, Louisiana, Maryland and Rhode Island, along with the District Columbia - get the group's highest rating of green. Most of the rest, 36 states, are rated yellow, indicating needing improvement. But nine states are rated red as dangerously lagging in adopting traffic safety measures, including Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Missouri, as well as Montana, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Wyoming. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, chair of the House Highways Subcommittee, says improving roadway safety requires a shift in priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: For too long, we have accepted preventable traffic deaths as inevitable, prioritized speed over safety and focused solely on moving cars quickly.

SCHAPER: The group also raises concerns about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. Deaths among people walking and biking are up 62% over the last decade. On the bright side, the safety advocates say the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted last year includes provisions to encourage states to fix and rebuild roads, highways and bridges so they're not just smoother, but safer, too. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.