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Why Drunk Driving Deaths Jumped in 2020

Data has a way of telling stories that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Almost two years into the pandemic, a statistical anomaly that defies basic intuition has come up to the fore. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2020 has seen the most drunk driving deaths since 2007, a major reversal of a downward trend since the early 2000s.

Surprisingly, this has come at a time when people were spending less time on the road. The obvious culprit is the rise in substance misuse rates that came as the pandemic dragged on. However, there is more to the story than most of us might have read about previously.

How did COVID drive substance misuse?

The early days of the pandemic caused authorities all over the country to issue stay-at-home orders or to strongly encourage people to stay home. This predictably led to a number of negative effects on our collective mental health.

The resulting social isolation and anxiety have been attributed to the precipitous rise in alcohol sales and consumption during the first year of the pandemic. This matches well with the experiences of drug rehab programs in Boston which are currently dealing with the fallout from that initial spike.

To make things worse, people who previously had no serious mental health issues or had mental health disorders in control were subjected to major emotional upheavals as uncertainty, job losses, and grief over deaths due to the pandemic took their toll. The CDC reported about 42 percent of Americans surveyed during a period covering December 9 to 21, 2020 reported an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms, which doubtlessly led to more alcohol consumption overall.

For people already undergoing treatment for alcohol use disorder, the situation was nothing short of catastrophic. Many rehab programs for alcohol use disorder were suspended or shut down due to COVID outbreaks, which prevented many from seeking or continuing treatment. Healthcare capacity for substance use disorders was also greatly diminished due to the ongoing needs of the pandemic.

Changes in driving habits

Almost as important as the rise of substance misuse was the fact that the empty roads changed driving habits, counterintuitively causing more people to drive less cautiously. Even people who were not drinking more were more prone to risky behavior, including speeding, not looking both ways at intersections, and not wearing seatbelts. Add alcohol and drug misuse to the mix and the stage was set for America’s most unsafe roads in over a decade.

This was even though the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that Americans drove 13% fewer miles in 2020 compared to 2019. Drunk driving deaths were not the only ones to rise either. Deaths from other kinds of intoxication as well as other risky behavior increased in this period as well.

Mental health may play a part

Risky behavior such as substance misuse and irresponsible driving can be related to a deterioration in one’s mental health. Conditions like grief and anxiety can make people far more likely to engage in either or both behaviors. Even discounting drinking and drug use, compromised mental health can, by itself, impair cognition and reduce reaction times. This already makes one more dangerous on the road, even without alcohol at play.

Several studies from before the pandemic had already found links between depression and anxiety and an increased risk of road accidents. Given that Americans, in particular, experienced a massive emotional upheaval during the initial period of the pandemic, it’s not far-fetched to surmise that this also contributed to the increased danger we’re currently facing on the road these days.

Summary

The ultimate cause of the rise in road fatalities is none other than the pandemic itself. Not only did it increase substance misuse, but it also increased many of the other risks that increased the probability of road fatalities as well.

While it’s easy to conclude that drunk driving was solely responsible for the rise in fatalities, it is likely only the most visible part of a wider mental health crisis that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world slowly begins to recover, we’re likely to see drunk driving and other road fatalities trend downward, though possibly not to 2019 levels.

It’s still impossible to say just how profound an effect COVID-19 has had on our collective psyche. It may take years for traumas to become evident or for maladaptive coping behavior like excessive drinking to manifest. In any case, the spike in roadside deaths should serve as a wake-up call for us to better take care of ourselves.

If you’re in New England and find that you have problems controlling your drinking, our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers is ready to help. Give us a call today to get started on your journey towards sobriety.