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Traffic death increase may be a result of COVID-19

A recent article (Jan. 1 by Christina Goldbaum) in the New York Times spoke to a deadly consequence of the pandemic — a significant increase in traffic deaths. When the pandemic hit New York City, cars seemed to disappear from many streets as the lockdown brought urban life to a halt and drivers stayed home. But in a troubling trend echoed across the country, the number of deadly car crashes has soared.

At least 243 people died in traffic crashes in New York City in 2020 — making it the deadliest year on record since Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced his signature plan to improve street safety in 2014, according to the Times article. The spike in traffic deaths defied historical trends: Economic downturns and reduced congestion typically lead to fewer fatal crashes, federal researchers say. But during the pandemic, it seemed that drivers who felt cooped up in their homes flocked to wide-open streets.

People sped recklessly down vacant highways. Riders who had not been on a motorcycle in years — or ever — took to roadways. In big cities, late-night drag racing became more popular as other entertainment vanished.

New York was not an exception. Across the country, fatality rates for traffic crashes increased, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agency. Between April and June, the fatality rate rose to around 30% higher than the first three months of the year, federal researchers found.

The spike can be explained, in no small part, by the coronavirus crisis. Older people, who tend to be more cautious drivers, stayed home. Without their usual diversions, younger drivers — who are more prone to risk-taking — hit the road. And increased alcohol and drug use to cope with pandemic-related stress factored into many crashes, the federal agency said.

“There were places that saw more speeding tickets issued during COVID than ever before,” said Richard Retting, a traffic safety expert with Sam Schwartz Engineering, a traffic and transportation planning firm. “Bottom line is the risk on the road during the COVID crises is significantly higher.

In New York City, officials said most fatal crashes in the city last year involved drivers cruising at high speeds, often late at night and on highways outside Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio also called on the state Legislature last month to allow the city’s speed camera program — which limits cameras to operating only in school zones and at certain times of day — to operate round-the-clock.

The city has more than 1,300 automated cameras, spread across 750 school zones that operate between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. More than a third of fatal crashes that happened off highways in 2020 occurred in zones when cameras were not active, according to city data.

Regardless of the reason for the increase in speeds and consequently in fatalities, drivers need to be aware of this and, hopefully, resist the urge to speed. Speed truly does kill.

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