When the country went into lockdown earlier this year to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of fatal automobile accidents nationwide was predicted by federal officials to decline.

Overall, that’s what happened: The number of fatal accidents in March, April and May declined slightly compared to 2019.

But, certain types of fatal crashes actually increased during the main months of the lockdown, with the federal government seeing an increase in auto fatalities involving younger drivers, in fatal crashes in rural areas and in drivers engaged in risky behavior. There was also an increase in vehicle fatalities where the vehicle overturned or the driver was ejected.

That finding is part of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released recently that examines crash data between April and June. In Kentucky, crashes also increased this year for the same reasons they increased across the country.

Trooper Corey King, public affairs officer for the Kentucky State Police in Henderson, said what KSP is finding is the number of wrecks overall is down from previous years, but that there has been an increase in fatalities from those wrecks.

“Speed is a contributing factor” in this year’s fatality crashes, King said. Also, slightly less than 60% of people killed in wrecks in the state “were not utilizing their seat belts,” he said.

The statistics from 2020 are bad news compared to last year, where traffic fatalities declined nationwide. NTHSA reported there were 36,096 people killed in automobile accidents last year, a 2% decrease from 2018.

There were more fatal crashes nationally in June of this year compared to June 2019. While fatal crashes were down slightly in March, April and May, the percentage of deadly wrecks in rural areas increased in those four months, as did the percentage of rollover accidents, ejections and the percentage of fatalities where those killed weren’t wearing seat belts.

As of Wednesday, there have been 764 vehicle fatalities in Kentucky. Last year, there were 732.

“While there has been an increase of 32 Kentucky highway fatalities in 2020 compared to 2019, data to date shows the percentage of unrestrained drivers has increased by almost 5%,” said Naitore Djibenou, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

“Nationally, states have seen an increase in speeding on the roads, which is one factor that impacts the severity of crashes and injuries,” Djibbenou said.

The Henderson KSP post has worked 26 fatal wrecks so far this year. King said troopers received an increase in complaints about reckless driving when the lockdown began, and troopers “were getting people at much higher speeds.”

“People get complacent. We believe, especially early on, there was more space and open roads, and people were increasing their speeding,” he said.

Traffic fatality numbers are comparable this year to the numbers in 2017, which was “a five-year high,” King said.

Although the lockdowns have eased, troopers are still encountering people driving at excessive speeds. “On the interstates, we are seeing some triple-digit” speeds, King said. “On the secondary roads, we are seeing some pretty high speeds. We are still getting generated calls from the public about aggressive driving.”

In 56.5% of fatal crashes in Kentucky this year, the victim was not wearing a seat belt. “That’s pretty significant,” King said.

Troopers will be out enforcing speed limits and looking for seat belt violations during the holiday season, King said.

“You can expect some road checks, especially toward the new year,” he said. “One thing we’d ask you to do is monitor your speed.”

Troopers will be targeting areas where data shows aggressive and reckless driving commonly occurs, and will be looking for intoxicated drivers. People who plan to celebrate need to make arrangements to get home if they are drinking, King said.

“If people do plan on going out, have a back-up plan,” he said.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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