Traffic deaths on the rise as pandemic eases; aggressive and distracted drivers on the road

Nationwide, the number of traffic fatalities last year hit its highest number in 16 years, according new data released Tuesday by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

In 2021, NHTSA said there were 42,915 traffic deaths, representing a 10.5% increase compared to 2020. The federal agency said that is the highest annual increase in traffic fatalities since the agency started collecting data in 1975.

In 2021, there were 7,342 pedestrian deaths, a 13% increase from 2020. There were 6,101 motorcycle deaths, representing a 9% increase.

The NHTSA data also shows 11,780 deaths were caused by speeding last year, a 5% increase over 2020.

"With the way drivers are driving, it doesn't surprise me at all. They're speeding all over the place, people weaving in and out of the lanes, abrupt stopping," said Tajay Davis of Sacramento.

"During the pandemic, nobody was driving. I think people just forgot how to drive," said Lita Tulloch of Oakland.

As more people return to work and school, Bay Area roads and highways have become more congested, and some drivers say it has become more stressful.

"I see people honking at each other, just not looking left or right, a lot of close calls," said Logan Mashy of Benicia.

"Aggressive driving, some crazy people out there doing stuff that seems a little sketchy," said John Alexander of Richmond.

The California Highway Patrol said its traffic fatality data is collected in a different database.

The state's 2021 data is still being finalized. 

The CHP says they are seeing fatal crashes, though, which easily could be avoided.

"Speed is our number one cause of fatal collisions. It continues to be speed, and of course, we did see an increase in speed-related violations during the pandemic," said Sgt. Raul Gonzalez, CHP's Golden Gate Division spokesman.

In one fatal crash in April last year, the CHP said the driver was going 120 miles an hour on I-580 before crashing.

Another problem is distracted driving. 

In 2021, the CHP says it issued more than 55,800 citations for distracted driving. At least 56 distracted drivers were involved in fatal crashes.

"Our teens are most at risk for this. We have to remind parents to educate  our teens," said Sgt. Gonzalez.

CHP officers were targeting distracted driving in April and issued more than 8,000 citations.

In May, the CHP will focus on motorcycle safety awareness.

During Memorial Day weekend, the CHP says it also will have maximum enforcement efforts, reminding drivers who might find roads more crowded and stressful to try to stay calm and safe.

"Avoid aggressive driving, it can lead to road rage," said Sgt. Gonzalez, "Avoid that situation at all times."

NHTSA is trying to address the increase in traffic deaths and has pending regulations that would require new light vehicles and heavy trucks to have automatic braking and pedestrian detection technology.

"We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "With our National Roadway Safety Strategy and the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are taking critical steps to help reverse this devastating trend and save lives on our roadways." 

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or