Impact of Recessions

Motor-vehicle deaths and death rates compared against the backdrop of recession periods reveal several interesting trends.

Prior to the recession associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, motor-vehicle deaths and death rates exhibited very consistent patterns. During past recession periods, the number of deaths and, to a lesser extent, the mileage-based death rate, tended to decline. The large drop in the number of deaths was partially a result of fewer people driving during lean economic times. The number of deaths then tend to increase following the end of recessionary periods. In contrast, both the number of deaths and mileage-based death rate sharply increased in 2020. The number of deaths increased 8%, while the death rate increased 22%. The increase in deaths was in spite of an 11% decrease in vehicle miles driven. In 2021, the number of deaths increased an additional 11% but because of an increase in miles driven, the mileage-based death rate increased only 3% from 2020. Now in 2022, both deaths and death rates decreased from 2021 highs but are still above pre-pandemic norms.

Much of the increase in deaths in 2020 is associated with three factors:

  • Alcohol-impaired driving: Alcohol-impaired fatal crashes increased 14% in 2020
  • Speeding: Speeding involved crashes increased 17% in 2020
  • Unrestrained vehicle occupants: Unrestrained vehicle occupant deaths increased 14% in 2020

A study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that the largest fatality increase in 2020 occurred from crashes occurring late at night or early morning. Fatal crash involvement of drivers operating vehicles owned by others also increased in 2020. Among vehicle occupant deaths, not wearing seatbelts accounted for nearly the entire increase.

A study conducted by He (2016) investigating the factors contributing to the decrease in motor-vehicle fatalities during the 2007-2009 great recession found that for each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, motor-vehicle fatalities decrease by 2.82%. The decrease in fatalities during the recession was driven by a number of factors.

For each percentage increase in the unemployment rate:

  • Fatalities involving large trucks decrease 8.4%
  • Speeding-related fatalities decrease 5.0%
  • Drunk driving-related fatalities decrease 3.6%
  • Driving fatalities not involving alcohol decrease 2.5%
  • Multi-vehicle crash fatalities decrease 4.1%
  • Urban crash fatalities decrease 4.6%

Now with fatalities down in 2022 compared to 2021, the following safety issues are improving:

  • Passenger vehicle occupant fatalities are down 4.8%
  • Speeding-related fatalities are down 2.8%
  • Alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities are down 0.7%
  • Distraction-affected crash fatalities are down 6.0%
  • Young drivers involved fatalities are down 4.9%
  • Chart
  • Data Table


Death data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), except 1964, which is a National Safety Council (NSC) estimate based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Motor-vehicle rates are based on mileage estimates from the Federal Highway Administration. Recession periods are from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Tefft, B.C., & Wang, M. (2022). Traffic Safety Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Fatal Crashes Relative to PrePandemic Trends, United States, May–December 2020 (Research Brief). Washington, D.C.: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

He, M.M. (2016). Driving through the great recession: why does motor vehicle fatality decrease when the economy slows down? Social Science & Medicine, 155, 1-11.