Fatal car crashes are surging – psychologist explains why

SEATTLE — The pandemic is contributing to deaths in ways beyond the virus. Car crash fatalities are surging and new numbers show 2021 is already the deadliest year for Washington state in at least a decade.

Drivers are being more reckless. Data from the Washington State Patrol (WSP) shows troopers issued 1,117 citations for reckless driving in 2020, compared to 937 in 2019 - an increase of 19%.

So far in 2021 (up to Dec. 10), the Washington Traffic Safety Commission says 577 people have already been killed in crashes, the most in at least a decade, but only slightly surpassing 2020′s death toll of 571 traffic fatalities.

WSP says the trend is particularly concerning ahead of the holidays with more people planning to drive this year, plus winter weather in the mix.

“We’ve seen some very dangerous driving out on our highways and people still choosing to drive impaired,” says Sgt. Darren Wright with WSP.

Psychologists explain that one contributing factor - the pandemic is impacting our brains in ways we might not even be aware of and sometimes it’s playing out on the roads.

Practicing clinical psychologist Dr. Kira Mauseth is a senior instructor of psychology at Seattle University and co-leads the WA State Department of Health Behavioral Health Strike Team.

“Not a single person in our country is immune from the disaster,” Mauseth said.

“Our brains - everyone’s collective brain to speak – are primed right now to try and protect ourselves from more events,” Mauseth said. “as a result of that – which is a survival instinct – we react in a way that’s defensive or maybe potentially more aggressive way towards other people. And that certainly has big consequences,” she said.

Mauseth recommends taking more time to think out choices and try to slow down.

She says another reason for more reckless behavior may be your brain trying to let off steam.

“People might be doing things out of character in an attempt to - subconsciously in a lot of cases - to feel good and to feel alive. So speeding and reckless driving definitely fits in that category,” Mauseth said.

People say they’ve noticed drivers behaving more erratically on the roads.

“People are like flying down the streets and you’ve got to swerve to avoid them,” said a Seattle resident who goes by “T”.

But the trend is nationwide.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities went up 7% in 2020, then jumped 18% in the first half of 2021.

“This also represents the highest number of fatalities during the first half of the year since 2006 and the highest half-year percentage increase in the history of data recorded by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS),” the NHTSA report said.

In Washington state, about 60% of the fatal crashes in 2020 involved impaired drivers. WSP says an increasing number of DUI crashes are involving multiple substances, alcohol and marijuana in particular.

“Combined, they have much more effect. And it’s more than additive - it’s multiplied how much impairment there is. So it’s very scary to see how much of the poly-drug impairment we’re seeing,” Wright said.

Emphasis patrols with law enforcement looking for impaired drivers will begin on Dec. 15 and continue through the holidays. Participating local agencies include:

Auburn Police Department

Bellevue Police Department

Burien Police Department

Federal Way Police Department

Issaquah Police Department

Kent Police Department

Kirkland Police Department

Redmond Police Department

Renton Police Department

SeaTac Police Department

Seattle Police Department

Shoreline Police Department

Tukwila Police Department

Washington State Patrol