Chicago traffic deaths were up 45% last year as speeding increased during COVID

Mural honoring Issac Martinez, 13, killed on his bike by an allegedly intoxicated driver last June in Ashburn. Photo: John Greenfield
Mural honoring Issac Martinez, 13, killed on his bike by an allegedly intoxicated driver last June in Ashburn. Photo: John Greenfield

Tragically, total on-street Chicago traffic deaths spiked from 96 in 2019, to 139 last year, a 45 percent increase, according to preliminary Chicago Police Department data released today by the Chicago Department of Transportation. This was also well above the 2014-2018 Chicago crash fatality average of 111.2, based on final Illinois Department of Transportation numbers.

Chart: CDOT
Chart: CDOT

The rise in fatalities can likely be attributed in part to the documented increase in speeding in our city during the COVID-19 pandemic, when fewer people have been driving and the roads are less congested.

This reflects a national trend, but Chicago’s increase in deaths was far worse than the nationwide average. According the advocacy group the National Safety Council, within the first nine months of 2020 the total number of miles driven in the U.S. dropped 14.5 percent compared to the previous year, but crash deaths were up by 5 percent.

Most of the rise in total 2020 Chicago traffic deaths was due to more motorist fatalities. The number of motor vehicle drivers and passengers killed in crashes increased from 52 in 2019, to 92 last year, a staggering 77 percent increase. That’s also far above the five-year average of 65.4 motorist fatalities.

Chart: CDOT
Chart: CDOT

During the pandemic, more people have turned to cycling as a form of socially-distanced transportation and recreation. Chicago has also saw a spike in cycling deaths in 2020, with nine total on-street fatalities, more than any other year in the past decade, and a 125 percent increase from 2019. (CDOT’s chart only shows 8 biking deaths — see a list of the nine fatal on-street crashes at the end of this post.) That’s well above the five-year average of six cycling fatalities.

Chart: CDOT
Chart: CDOT

The only silver lining to the new figures is that pedestrian deaths were down slightly, from 40 last year, to 39 in 2020, just under the five-year average of 39.4 fatalities. One possible explanation for why there was no increase in walking deaths while other modes spiked may be a decrease in foot traffic due to fewer people commuting to work, especially in the Loop.

Chart: CDOT
Chart: CDOT

Back in October the Mayor Lori Lightfoot administration used the rising traffic fatality rate during the pandemic as an argument for lowering the threshold for speed camera tickets from 10 mph over the limit to 6 mph. Streetsblog Chicago didn’t endorse that change, since it’s unclear whether people going only 6-9 mph over the limit, as opposed to truly egregious 10 mph+ speeders, are to blame for the spike in deaths, and the pandemic seems like a bad time to be issuing a flurry of new fines since many people are already struggling financially. But since the change passed the City Council, hopefully it will have a positive impact on reducing speeding and serious crashes this year, without inflicting undue fiscal pain on low-income and working-class Chicagoans.

Here’s a list of the nine 2020 bike fatality cases.

A tenth person, Mark Goodman, 56, died after suffering brain injuries in a crash with another cyclist on the Lakefront Trail near Belmont Avenue.

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