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‘Really concerning behavior’: Continuing pandemic trend, traffic deaths rose again in 2021

More people were killed on Massachusetts roadways in 2021 than in any other year since 2007, continuing an alarming spike in road deaths across the state since the pandemic began. The northbound Expressway in Dorchester is pictured on Jan. 5.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

More people were killed on Massachusetts roadways in 2021 than in any other year since 2007, continuing an alarming spike in road deaths across the state since the pandemic began.

As of Monday, the state had counted 414 drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes last year, a sharp increase from the 343 deaths recorded in 2020, according to a Massachusetts Department of Transportation database that tracks traffic fatalities.

The statistics are preliminary, a spokeswoman for MassDOT said, and likely to tick up slightly as law enforcement agencies complete their final tallies and submit them to the state.


Still, the preliminary data indicate a trend that began in 2020 as more drivers traveled at excessive speeds on roads that had fewer vehicles due to the pandemic, worsened last year, even as traffic levels surged back.

Speeding and a decrease in seat-belt usage appear to be leading factors, the MassDOT spokeswoman said.

Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes safe driving, said the statistics pointed to some “really concerning behavior.”

“Something has changed during the pandemic in the way some of us think about driving,” she said. “We are losing too many people to these preventable crashes.”

Before 2020, fatal crashes had leveled off from highs reached in the 1990s and mid-2000s, when more than 400 people died in Massachusetts traffic incidents 14 years running, according to the most recently available data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. After 2007, when 434 fatalities were recorded in the state, traffic-related deaths dipped into the mid- to low-300s, according to the NHTSA data.

The NHTSA tracks traffic fatalities nationally and publishes data specific to each state when single year counts are complete. The MassDOT dashboard breaks down the state’s traffic data more specifically and tracks fatal crashes in real-time, meaning the data are sometimes subject to change.


In 2020, with traffic levels low, 343 people were killed in crashes, the MassDOT database indicates.

The Globe reported that the number of total accidents — fatal and nonfatal — in the state during that year fell by more than 40,000, according to the MassDOT database, indicating that a higher percentage of crashes in 2020 were deadly.

Traffic specialists have theorized that, with the roads quieter in 2020 due to people quarantining during the first year of the pandemic, motorists were driving faster. A higher number of speeding violations was also reported by MassDOT that year.

Multiple studies of driving trends by the NHTSA found that fatal crashes have soared across the United States during the pandemic, largely as a result of reckless driving and speeding.

In a change from 2020, traffic went back to nearly pre-pandemic levels in 2021, and the number of violations involving speeds over 100 miles per hour dipped. Still, state officials and traffic specialists said that, based on the preliminary data, speed was a leading factor behind the uptick in deadly crashes.

“There is no doubt that speeding on Massachusetts roadways during the pandemic has been a significant, alarming and deadly problem,” Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for AAA Northeast, said in an e-mail.

In an analysis of driving behavior between March 2020 and June 2021, the NHTSA found that incidents of speeding and traveling without a seat belt were higher across the United States than during pre-pandemic times.


“There is some psychological component tied to COVID,” Stein said. “A lot of people are just so tired of following rules that we’re expected to follow now with masks and distancing. People tend to just get in their cars and... feel some control and not want to follow the speed limit or wear a seat belt.”

Of the 414 people killed last year in crashes in Massachusetts, 212 were drivers, 76 were pedestrians, 40 were passengers in a vehicle, five were bicyclists, and one was driving an off-road vehicle or farm equipment, according to the MassDOT database. Fatalities stemming from motorcycle crashes were also on the rise last year: The state recorded 80 in 2021, up from 58 in 2020.

To try to stem the sudden rise in traffic fatalities, several proposed bills from Governor Charlie Baker’s administration would amend traffic laws in Massachusetts.

One of them, which would crack down on drugged driving, has drawn fierce criticism from legal and scientific experts who worry that law-abiding drivers could be unfairly subject to a questionable roadside impairment evaluation and swept into the legal system.

As of Monday, 17 people have died in crashes so far this year, according to the MassDOT dashboard, though the total may not include fatalities in recent days.

Andrew Brinker can be reached at Follow him @andrewnbrinker.