DES MOINES, Iowa – The Biden administration calls it a crisis on America’s roads. Nearly 43,000 people were killed on U.S. streets and highways last year, the most in 16 years as Americans returned to driving after staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before 2020, the number of U.S. traffic deaths had fallen for three straight years. But police say they’ve seen a lot more reckless drivers during the pandemic. Iowa State Patrol troopers say it’s not uncommon to spot drivers speeding at 150 mph on highways.
While traveling, drivers likely don't pay attention to traffic in the sky. But Iowa State Trooper Pilot Taylor Grimm is paying attention to drivers below.
"I am looking for people that are excessively speeding, going really fast, weaving all over the road," Grimm said. "We stop people for a hundred miles an hour almost daily with our airplanes."
He communicates with State Trooper Mark Griggs on the ground, letting Griggs know which cars are speeding as they approach him.
"Speed, specifically since the pandemic, has just skyrocketed. It’s pretty bad," Grimm said.
Trooper Alex Dinkla says speed is to blame in a nearly 15% increase in Iowa traffic deaths compared to the same time last year.
The entire country is seeing similar increases.
Traffic deaths nationwide jumped over 10% from 2020 and nearly 17% from 2018.
Safety advocates blame speeding, distracted or impaired driving and not wearing seat belts.
"Our speculation is that, during the pandemic, when the roads were really empty, a number of people took to the roads and used our roadways as racetracks," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "And they were speeding and letting off aggression and frustration and depression. And that's still lingering, but our roads are populated again. So, it's kind of a perfect storm of what's happening on our roads right now."
The safety advocates group is pressuring the U.S. Department of Transportation to require more crash avoidance technology in new cars, like automatic emergency braking and blind spot detection.
"They don’t see officers, but we're out here, and we're going to make traffic stops. And people are going to have a consequence for driving those speeds," Dinkla warned.
Police caution that reckless drivers are risking lives and their freedom.
"If somebody is killed because of your reckless driving, you can be charged criminally as well," Grimm said.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced his department’s new Safe Streets and Roads for All program this week. It will provide federal cash to communities that pledge to promote safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.
The Biden administration is sending $5 billion in federal aid to help communities slow down cars, carve out bike paths and widen sidewalks. The administration is also hoping to ramp up public transit usage.