By Marlee Ginter

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – A deadly pandemic pitfall is putting drivers at risk on our roadways. Newly released numbers show just how dangerous driving has become with more than 38,000 people killed in roadway crashes across the country.

When the pandemic first hit, many freeways were left wide open with virtually no traffic backups slowing drivers down. Now, new statistics show that actually led to an increase in fatal crashes.

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“Of course it’s surprising because the math just doesn’t add up,” said Tim Weisberg, with the California Office of Traffic Safety. “You would think with less traffic, less people driving on the roads, they’re going to be safer.”

The federal highway study shows it was the largest increase in traffic deaths in more than a decade.

“It’s heartbreaking, it’s hard to hear and it’s unacceptable,” Weisberg said.

Preliminary data shows driving during 2020 decreased by 13%, but fatal crashes went up 7% compared to one year earlier. And speeding was one of the biggest factors.

“Hopefully we can get people to change behaviors,” Weisberg said.

One surprising finding was the number of victims not wearing seatbelts.

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“It’s really concerning because it’s the easiest thing to do,” Weisberg said. “It literally takes two seconds to buckle up.”

Statistics also show a dramatic increase in drug and alcohol use while driving. Of the crashes involving fatalities or serious injuries, the study shows half of the drivers tested positive for marijuana use.

“Marijuana is tricky because people think they’re OK to drive and they’re really not,” Weisberg said.

One positive outcome was a 9% decrease in the number of crashes involving drivers over 65 years old.

“That is the silver lining there probably weren’t a lot of them traveling they were probably staying at home because they were more at risk for COVID,” Weisberg said.

The year 2020 was unlike any other, having a huge impact on traffic.

“We’ve already seen way too much death and heartbreak with the pandemic and it shouldn’t be exasperated by traffic fatalities,” Weisberg said.

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In California, the state Office of Traffic Safety is hoping to get $100 million in federal funding this year to make roadways safer.