Motor vehicle deaths jumped 8% in 2020, despite fewer people on the roads amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to preliminary data from the National Safety Council.
"We believe that the open roads really gave drivers an open invitation marked open season on reckless driving," Maureen Vogel, director of communications at NSC, said in an interview with ABC News.
The NSC, a nonprofit focused on promoting safety in the United States, said despite a 13% drop in miles driven in 2020, the estimated rate of death on the roads last year spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period.
"The rate of death underscores the nation's persistent failure to prioritize safety on the roads, which became emptier but far more deadly," the NSC said in a press release.
While the final data will determine causation, Vogel said states saw increases in speeding, increases in distraction and, in some cases, increases in impaired driving.
In April of last year, the Governor's Highway Safety Administration said state highway safety officials across the country reported a "severe spike" in speeding.
Preliminary data from the NSC showed as many as 42,060 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020 -- compared to 39,107 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents in 2019.
Seven states and the District of Columbia saw more than a 15% increase in the estimated number of deaths last year -- this includes Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont.
"We still have roads in the United States that are not really designed with safety in mind, we need a safe system approach that engineers out some of the common hazards," Vogel said.
Only nine states saw a drop in deaths, the NSC said. Among them were Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Earlier this year, the NSC and other agencies called upon the Biden administration to commit to zero roadway deaths by 2050. Vogel said federal agencies should embrace crash avoidance technology in vehicles and implement a safe system approach to roadway design.
"The acceleration of technology, working with those car manufacturers to make sure that things like automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning systems are implemented in all cars, not just higher end vehicles because safety shouldn't be just for people who can afford it," Vogel said. "And then the safe systems approach is really that last kind of infrastructure change that we need in our roadways -- our roads, our bridges are crumbling."
The data from the NSC comes as the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. The ASCE graded the U.S. with a C-, up from a D+ from the last report from four years ago.
"This is good news and an indication we're headed in the right direction, but a lot of work remains," ASCE wrote in the report.