March 4 (UPI) -- Despite a dramatic decrease in the number of drivers on U.S. roads last year due to COVID-19, motor vehicle deaths nationwide in 2020 still increased by almost 10%, according to an analysis Thursday.
The National Safety Council said in its report that the "alarming" preliminary data show motor vehicle deaths on U.S. roads -- about 42,000 total -- climbed 8% in 2020 and the death rate topped 24%. Almost 5 million people were seriously injured in crashes last year.
Nine states saw a decline in road deaths last year, led by Hawaii and Delaware, while seven states and Washington, D.C., saw deaths rise by at least 15%. The states that saw the greatest increases were South Dakota, Vermont, Arkansas and Rhode Island.
The year-to-year increase in total road deaths was the largest in 13 years, the council said.
After the pandemic arrived early last year, various restrictions led to millions of fewer vehicles on the roads. The decrease, in fact, took a significant toll on the prices of oil and gas. The NSC noted a decline of 13% in total miles driven in the United States.
The NSC said, however, that the increase in deaths may also be attributable to the coronavirus outbreak.
"We believe that the open roads really gave drivers an open invitation marked open season on reckless driving," NSC Communications Director Maureen Vogel told ABC News.
The rate of road deaths last year saw its greatest one-year rise in 2020 since the NSC began tracking them almost 100 years ago, the report said. Motor vehicle deaths increased by almost 3,000 from 2019 to 2020, it noted.
The rate last year was 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled and the estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage was $474 billion, the NSC said.
"It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn't reap any safety benefits," NSC President and CEO Lorraine Martin said in a statement.
"It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively and NSC stands ready to assist all stakeholders, including the federal government."
Some steps that can be taken, it added, include improving laws and infrastructure, installing vehicle locks for convicted drunk drivers, lowering the speed limit and enforcing helmet laws for motorcycles and bicyclists.
The NSC also said faster development for technologies to improve autonomous driving and automated law enforcement would help bring down the death rate. Bans for all cellphone use while driving and improved seat belt laws are other measures that could help.