The details are ghastly: Henry Ruggs III, former wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders, slammed into an SUV driven by Tina Tintor, 23, early Tuesday morning. Ruggs was allegedly drunk and speeding at more than 150 miles an hour down a Las Vegas street. Tintor’s car burst into flames, and she and her golden retriever burned to death. A witness who tried to rescue her heard her screams.
Ruggs and his companion were injured. He’s since been charged with reckless driving and driving under the influence.
The crash is horrific but far from uncommon. In the United States, where we all but worship the automobile, we’ve long failed to take road safety as seriously as we should. The results are predictably tragic: The United States leads the developed world in traffic-related deaths, with more than double the rate of any other country.
The “anything goes” mentality of the pandemic has made the situation worse. As a general rule, traffic fatalities are supposed to go down when the economy goes into a tailspin; the fewer cars on the road, the fewer fatal mistakes will happen. This time, the opposite happened. In 2020, vehicles killed 38,680 people in the United States, a 7 percent increase from 2019, even as people stayed home in droves. The trend continued into 2021. In cities ranging from Los Angeles to New York to, yes, Las Vegas, car-related deaths are up year over year.
The immediate cause of the on-the-road carnage is not mysterious. Both police records and public polling — not to mention personal observations — show a major decline in good behavior by the nation’s drivers over the course of the pandemic. Semi-empty streets early in the pandemic permitted speeding and risky attitudes that persisted even as the economy reopened.
According to a recent survey by Erie Insurance, a majority of drivers say they noticed more drivers driving at high speeds than they had previously. One in 10 admitted to doing it themselves.
Drag racing is up, too. In California, the number of people receiving tickets for driving more than 100 miles per hour nearly doubled during the pandemic. So is driving under the influence. Nevada Highway Patrol busted almost twice as many people for driving under the influence in April 2020 than they did the same month the year prior.
The victims are young and old, rich and poor. They have died when cars spin out of control. They have died in multicar crashes. And they have died when cars struck them while they were walking or biking. Less than 24 hours before Ruggs crashed into Tintor, an alleged drunk driver in Mississippi killed Allison Conaway, 39, and her 6-month-old son — and severely injured her two daughters. The day after, Wilma Chan, 72, a longtime San Francisco-area politician, was hit and killed while crossing a street in Alameda, Calif., with her dog.
But the recent surge in car crashes is also the result of an auto-based society that’s been resistant to change. Road design encourages speed over safety. Many suburbs lack sidewalks. Cities don’t take safety as seriously as they should; municipal authorities have long known the street where Chan died was dangerous.
Subpar auto design is also a factor: Those driving SUVs, which ride higher and are bulkier than typical cars, are more likely to kill pedestrians than someone behind the wheel of a compact car. So, too, is subpar enforcement of traffic rules. The car of the driver who allegedly killed a 3-month-old infant in New York City in September has had an astonishing 160 traffic violations issued against it since 2017. The driver still had his license to drive.
We often call these terrible tragedies “accidents,” as though they were acts of God or random events that could not be avoided. They are not. (The term “accident” itself is a bit of propaganda from the auto industry when crashes first aroused public fury 100 years ago.) They are all too often the result of a mind-set that continues to prioritize cars over human life. It permits drivers to ignore known hazards and make excuse after excuse for rule-breaking — until something fatal occurs.
It almost seems as if we love cars more than ourselves. We can do better.