Less traffic during COVID-19 may not mean fewer fatalities

Less traffic during COVID-19 may not mean fewer fatalitiesWith significantly less traffic because of the “Stay Home” mandates, and the “not much is open and no place to go” atmosphere that we are currently living in, you would expect crashes, injuries, and fatalities would be significantly less that pre-COVID-19 times. But, that is not necessarily the case. Evidence is beginning to emerge that absent traffic jams during the coronavirus crisis, many drivers are getting more reckless. And because speed is the number one predictor of crash severity, the proportion of people dying per collision is on the rise in many communities.

The number of car crashes is indeed plummeting due to lower traffic volumes on American roads, but the rate of car crashes is actually up in many cities — as are the injury and fatality rates for both drivers and vulnerable users, according to an article from Streetsblog USA by Kea Wilson. For instance, the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) says traffic volume in the Twin Cities has dropped 47%. Statewide, the number of cars on the roads has dropped in half. But authorities say there is a frightening flip side. OTS said between March 16 and April 7 of this year, there were 24 crashes and 28 deaths. In 2019, there were 12 crashes and 13 deaths. In 2018, the office reports there were 13 crashes and 15 deaths.

“Speed is a huge issue, and people driving in a reckless or careless manner,” says OTS Director Mike Hanson. “As traffic got lighter, these extreme speeds, these folks zipping in and out of traffic were much more pronounced, more aggressive,” Hanson says. The result: traffic fatalities are up, even though there are fewer vehicles on the roads. And, almost no one is driving these days in New York City, but fatalities haven’t declined nearly as much. Vehicle miles traveled on New York City streets have declined by nearly 80% compared to the previous year every day since March 12 — but pedestrian injuries are down only 58 percent, a discrepancy that can likely be explained by the fact that the rates of driver speeding is actually higher. And more motorists died in the period between March 2 and April 8 — even though there are so few cars on the road. In Massachusetts, car crash deaths are down but the rate for those car crashes is actually on the rise. Collisions were down 73% between March 15 and April 1 compared to the same dates in 2019, but crash deaths were down only 38%.

It must be said that only a tiny handful of cities provide anything close to real-time crash data to the public, and even some of the states that do are not experiencing an uptick in the death rate. Over such a short period of reporting, data can be distorted by one significant crash, so in reality, it’s too early to tell whether the fewer vehicles on the road are really driving that much more dangerously and causing a significantly higher fatality rate per mile driven or if it’s just too early to tell. Nevertheless, these figures are disturbing.


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