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Going In Reverse: Dangerous Driving Behaviors on the Rise

After Years Of Improvement, New Research Shows A Troubling Increase In Admitted Risky Driving

A new report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds unsafe driving behaviors, including speeding, red-light running, drowsy driving, and driving impaired on cannabis or alcohol, rose from 2020 to 2021. The most alarming increase was among drivers admitting to getting behind the wheel after drinking enough that they felt they were over the legal limit – an increase of nearly 24%.  According to new survey data in the AAA Foundation’s annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, this is a reversal in the steady declines in these dangerous driving behaviors in the three years from 2018 through 2020.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, traffic fatalities have risen. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, a 10.5% increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020. According to NHTSA, dangerous driving behaviors such as speeding, alcohol impairment, and non-use of seatbelts account for a considerable proportion of the increased fatalities. Accordingly, AAA urges drivers to keep everyone safe on the roads and warns motorists against falling back into dangerous driving habits.

“The increase in the number of U.S. drivers engaging in risky driving behavior is troubling,” said Morgan Dean, public and government affairs manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic.  “While drivers consistently acknowledge that certain risky behaviors behind the wheel, such as speeding and driving impaired, are not safe, many still engage in these activities anyway.”


The proportion of people who reported having engaged in the following unsafe driving behaviors at least once in the past 30 days before the survey.

As in previous years, drivers reported too often engaging in risky behaviors that they know are dangerous and would meet with disapproval from friends or family.

For example:
  • Texting While Driving
    • 92% think it’s very or extremely dangerous
    • 96% think someone important to them would disapprove
    • 26% admit to doing it in the last 30 days
  • Aggressive Driving
    • 88% think it’s very or extremely dangerous
    • 96% think someone important to them would disapprove
    • 23% admit to doing it in the last 30 days
  • Impaired Driving
    • 94% believe driving after drinking enough alcohol (to the point one considers they might be over the legal limit) to be very or extremely dangerous
    • 7% admit to engaging in this behavior in the past 30 days
    • 65% of drivers feel driving, within an hour, of using marijuana is very or extremely dangerous
    • 93% believe people important to them would disapprove of the behavior

AAA’s AAA’s Traffic Safety CultureSince Nearly three in four drivers supported making it illegal to drive with any drug (not legally prescribed) in one’s system. “The privilege of driving comes with great responsibility, which some motorists are not taking seriously,” said Dean.

AAA’s Traffic Safety Culture Index illustrates a clear disconnect when it comes to impaired driving and the perception that marijuana use and driving is less dangerous than drinking alcohol and getting behind the wheel. “We must be aware of the serious consequences of all dangerous driving behaviors and change course,” Dean added.


The purpose of the Traffic Safety Culture survey is to better understand drivers’ perceptions and attitudes towards risky behaviors, so we can work together to find the best possible way to address those issues and reduce crashes.  “With nearly 43,000 fatal crashes nationwide every year, we’ve got to do everything we can to save more lives.” Dean added.

Virginia saw a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in 2021, reaching a 14 year high. There were 968 crash fatalities in the Commonwealth last year, up 14% from the 847 deaths in 2020. This year is on track to surpass 2021’s numbers. Through the end of November of this year, according to preliminary data from DMV, there have been 922 crash fatalities in Virginia, 31 more than the 891 recorded during that same time period in 2021.

AAA recommends these safety tips:

  • Out of sight, out of mind. Stow your smartphone away, turn it to airplane mode, or activate call/text blocking features like Apple’s Do Not Disturb.
  • Slow down. Drivers tend to overestimate the time saved by speeding. Speed kills and isn’t worth the cost.
  • Stay alert. Stop driving if you become sleepy because you can fall asleep anytime. Fatigue impacts reaction time, judgment, and vision.
  • Drive sober.  If you consume marijuana or alcohol, then don’t drive. If you are taking potentially impairing prescription medications, discuss with your doctor or pharmacist how best to stay safe AND healthy behind the wheel.
  • Buckle your seat belt for every ride. It does not matter where in the vehicle you are seated. A properly worn seatbelt is the most effective way to survive a traffic crash.

For more on transportation safety, read Our Families, Our Streets, Our Safety
by Paula Peters Chamber in RFM.


[Feature photo of downtown Richmond by Lindsey Schwartzkopf]
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