Going In Reverse: 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 Tracy Noble, 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     

Unsafe Driving Behavior









Change from 2020 to 2021 (%)

Driven 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway






Driven while holding and talking on a cell phone






Driven while reading a text or email on a cell phone






Driven through a red light






Driven aggressively by switching lanes quickly or very close behind another car






Driven when so tired it was hard to keep eyes open






Driven when you had enough alcohol that you thought you were over the legal limit






Driven within an hour of consuming cannabis







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

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 Noble.  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,” Noble 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.” Noble said.

In New Jersey according to the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Statistics 697 people lost their lives on New Jersey roadways in 2021 the highest number since 2007 and up almost 19% compared to 2020.  As of December 7, 2022 New Jersey has seen 648 traffic deaths. 

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.
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  1. Maybe if there were other options for getting around there would be fewer people compelled to drive.

    People know it’s illegal and unwise to drive impaired, they just don’t have a choice.

  2. They have no idea, drivers in NJ are down right suicidel, after the lockdowns everyone got back on the roads, I thought they just forgot how to drive and will quickly pick it back up, I was very wrong, speeding, passing on shoulder, cutting off, brake checking, all stuff that has happened to me in the last month while driving my service truck, I can’t drive fast so people get annoyed quick. I stick to the right lane, try to leave space Infront of me, always watching mirrors, it’s getting worse.

    • 1st. Get a dashcam, mine has saved me money, time and stress. You can get one for $30
      2nd. You can’t take a survey if your dead
      3rd. There has been an utter lack of traffic enforcement and COVID is the excuse given.

  3. You are so right Jack! I’m a delivery driver and here in CA we see the same driving behaviors, including playing frogger in the lanes which inevitably leads to a crash eventually. I’ve learned to drive very fast only in defense so I’m not hit, which I have, as well as many others. Release of serious offenders has added to the severity of accidents and unacceptable driving habits. Sideshows? Life isn’t a movie! Dead people don’t get do-overs!

  4. Much has been caused by the cultural divisiveness, which increased after 2021. The obvious lack of consequences for certain people, as well as a surge in disrespect for police and politicians, surely had an effect. The reduction in actual driver training hours, as well as the advertising for automatic driving safety devices, which most cars do not have, surely did not help.

  5. Every day I see driving that not only used to get you pulled over, but possibly even arrested, and cops now just look on. I get pulled over for dirty license plate, but watch cars blow by me in school zone like I’m just sitting there, they’re still doing full speed, and the cop: 🧑‍🦯

  6. Our judicial system is always trying to make our lives easier by legalizing every thing that can kill us. And the only ones who profit are the tax collectors and the undertakers. I have faith in our society that they will never learn. God help us all.

  7. Yes all these points are well taken that is for sure but AAA is telling public wrong information driving a motor vehicle in the private sector is not a privilege it is your constitutional right there is no driver’s license required there is no license or registration requirements there are no insurance requirements as in the US Supreme Court decision versus Horton these are all myths they are not true or nothing more than a money-making opportunity for the state and local governments please retract your story thank you

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