FILE - Police squad car, patrol car

(The Center Square) – The number of alcohol-related driving deaths in Illinois spiked during the first months of the pandemic.

New data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows 311 people died in alcohol-related crashes on Illinois roadways in 2020, an increase of 22% from the year prior.

“I think with the pandemic there weren't as many people traveling on the roads, so people with wide open roads were a little bit braver,” said Rita Kreslin, executive director of the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists. “They would speed a little bit more, maybe not be as safe and not wear their seatbelt.”

The report shows that nearly 1,200 total fatalities were recorded on Illinois roads in 2020, 18% more than in 2019.

Despite a 7% rise in road fatalities nationwide, there were 17% fewer people injured and a 22% drop in non-fatal crashes. Kreslin says fewer drivers during the pandemic didn’t necessarily mean safer habits behind the wheel.

“Reports even from police officers would tell us that that's what they were seeing on the road too, just more risky behavior from having an open road to themselves,” Kreslin said.

In 2020, there were 1,638 drivers involved in fatal crashes who were simultaneously unrestrained, alcohol-impaired, and speeding. That’s a 21% increase in just one year.

Kreslin is pointing to a more robust education effort as a possible catalyst to turn the numbers around.

“Since 0.08 [the blood alcohol legal limit] has happened and the progress we've made throughout the years, overall crash fatalities and alcohol impairment are down. People do get the message,” Kreslin said. “The alcohol industry does an amazing job of telling the public to drink responsibly. Now we have another issue of telling people to consume responsibly if they're of legal age to be using marijuana.”

Meanwhile, a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Administration shows pedestrian fatalities in Illinois rose by 7% in the first six months of 2020, from 70 in 2019 to 75.

Nationwide, there’s been a 46% jump in pedestrian fatalities since 2010. Alcohol impairment – for the driver and/or pedestrian – was reported in about half of crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities in 2019.

The report also indicates the increases in pedestrian fatalities are occurring largely at night.