NBC 7 Investigates: Deadly Crashes Hit Highest Level in 15 Years

Local roads became more deadly during the pandemic. Now that life is returning to normal, experts say it’s even more dangerous.

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Daily life changed dramatically for San Diegans in 2020. For many, working from home became the norm. The result of that was fewer cars on local roads, highways, and interstates. But that didn’t make for safer streets. And as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, it appears dangerous driving is getting worse.

On May 16, Irvin Antonio Rojas died in a crash in Clairemont. The 22-year-old college UCSD senior was just three weeks shy of his graduation. His family said he would have been the first in the family to graduate from college.

His cousin Helma Zecena told NBC 7 Investigates, “This is so sudden and devastating to everyone. He was one of the oldest cousins, even the youngest ones feel it. They understand. He just brought a smile to everyone’s face.”

According to police, around 10 p.m. a 29-year-old woman was driving eastbound on Balboa Avenue in Clairemont when she struck Rojas’ car as he traveled north on Mount Everest Boulevard. NBC 7 reached out to police this week who said the case is still being investigated.

Then on June 4, two San Diego police officers died instantly when their sedan was hit by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 5 near San Ysidro. The officers were a married couple. The driver who hit them also died in the crash.

And you don’t have to be behind the wheel, or in a car, to face danger on the asphalt. This past August, a Chula Vista girl was hit by a driver in a crosswalk.

Now that it’s 2021, more drivers have returned to regular work commuting, travel, and more. But reckless driving habits may also be along for the ride.

Data released from a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found more than 38,000 people died in car crashes in 2020, the most since 2007. And those numbers are only getting worse.

In the first half of 2020, 17,020 Americans died in crashes. During the same time period in 2021, 20,160 people died. That’s an 18.4% increase.

Mark Chung with the National Safety Council said more people aren’t just speeding, they’re choosing not to wear seat belts, and getting behind the wheel when they aren’t sober.

“We have managed to really undo the progress in safety that we have made over the last 15 years, over the last 2 years,” he said. “We’re definitely heading in the wrong direction. I really can’t call this anything other than a national epidemic.”

Dr. Frank Farley, Professor of Psychology at Temple University agrees, saying, “We’re living in a culture of death in this country … so people may be adapting to that and therefore becoming a little more reckless and a little less concerned about their safety.”

Farley said there’s a long list of reasons why more of us are driving more dangerously, saying many of them stem from the unnaturally restrictive, and even traumatic experiences we endured during the lockdowns of the pandemic.

“We really have two pandemics going on here. The first is the viral pandemic. And the second one is the psychological and behavioral pandemic," said Farley. "And that psychological pandemic may carry on for a long time into the future. Our culture may be changing at some deep levels due to this virus.”

Farley says the solution may be as simple as staying positive. He says this isn’t the first time the human race has been through a pandemic, remarking, “It wasn’t the most intelligent species that survive. Or the strongest. But the ones most adaptable to change. And that’s us. We adapt to change amazingly well over time. So I’m very optimistic about this. We’ll get through this.”

Chung said we have existing technology that would save thousands of lives, alcohol detectors inside cars. He says the technology is already there, it’s just a matter of mandating it.

Both Chung and Farley said those ideas could make huge difference, preventing more families from living with the daily reminder of the effects of dangerous driving.

For Helma Zecena, it’s never ending.

When talking about Rojas, she says, “We’ll always continue carrying him with us. Every birthday, every holiday that comes around. He’s always going to be with us.”

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