Is Highway Safety Sick?
COVID-weary jurisdictions grapple with a secondary pandemic: dangerous driving
Thanks to social distancing and stay-at-home orders in cities across the globe, motorists stayed at home, airplanes idled in hangars and busy factories went dark. Although the economy floundered, the environment flourished. A study in the journal Nature Climate Change, for example, found that global emissions of carbon dioxide decreased by nearly 20% in the early days of the pandemic. Simultaneously, levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide fell by 20% to 40% in the United States, Western Europe and China, according to the American Geophysical Union.
Traffic safety advocates had reason to be just as optimistic as environmentalists. If declines in automobile traffic could produce a decrease in air pollution, they reasoned, they surely would facilitate a decrease in fatal car crashes, too.
“In the past, when vehicle miles traveled declined, fatalities also declined,” says Essie Wagner, office director for the Office of Behavioral Safety Research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who cites as a reference point the year 2008, which marked the start of the Great Recession. That year, NHTSA reports, vehicle miles traveled fell 2% compared to 2007, precipitating a 10% decline in fatalities from motor vehicle crashes, which reached their lowest level since 1961.
“Our analysis showed that having less discretionary income was a strong predictor for these changes,” continues Wagner, who notes a historical correlation between traffic fatalities and unemployment: When there are fewer people working, there are fewer people driving—to jobs they don’t have, for example, and to activities and vacations they can’t afford. The result is fewer crashes and, therefore, fewer traffic deaths.
With the U.S. economy receding as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, logic suggested that what happened in 2008 would happen again in 2020. But data showed otherwise. Although vehicle miles traveled fell by an estimated 13%, motor-vehicle deaths actually rose by 8%, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), which estimates there were 42,060 motor-vehicle deaths in 2020 compared to 39,107 in 2019. The death rate, meanwhile, surged by an estimated 24%, from 1.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2019 to 1.49 in 2020. That’s the highest death-rate increase in 96 years, according to the NSC.
“It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits,” NSC President and CEO Lorraine M. Martin said in a statement. “These data expose our lack of an effective roadway safety culture. It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively.”
Stakeholders at both the state and federal levels agree. With the coronavirus finally retreating, they’re committed to understanding what happened on U.S. roadways during the pandemic—and to preventing it from ever happening again.
Crashing Into COVID-19
NHTSA’s data for the first three quarters of 2020 are consistent with the NSC’s estimates. During the first nine months of the year, there were 28,190 traffic deaths in the U.S. and a fatality rate of 1.35 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up 4.6% and 22.7%, respectively, compared to the first nine months of 2019. Of particular concern are data from the third quarter, which logged a 13.1% increase in traffic deaths—from 9,953 to 11,260—and a 26.5% increase in the fatality rate, from 1.17 to 1.48.
Unemployment during this period averaged 8.5% and peaked at 14.8%, which under normal circumstances should have foiled traffic deaths. Clearly, however, there were other, stronger forces at play.
While it’s too early to say with certainty exactly what those forces were, a few obvious trends loom large.
The most significant is speeding, according to Barbara Rooney, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety. In the first month of California’s stay-at-home order—from March 19 to April 19—she says California observed a 35% decline in traffic volume on state roads but recorded an 87% increase in the number of citations issued for speeding in excess of 100 miles per hour. Since peaking in May 2020, those citations have begun to subside, but only slightly. In September and October 2020, for example, the number of citations for excessive speeding in California was nearly double what it was in September and October 2019.
“The immediate shift in driver behavior has been alarming, to say the least,” notes Rooney, who says traffic deaths in California rose 5% in 2020 compared to 2019.
The problem isn’t confined to California. In Georgia, citations for speeding in excess of 100 miles per hour similarly rose by 56% in 2020, according to Spencer Moore, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services, who hypothesizes that increased speeding was born of increased opportunity.
“Especially during the height of the pandemic, traffic congestion was down. And the more open the highway is, the higher the speeds that drivers may drive,” says Moore, who also notes a decrease in traffic enforcement during the pandemic—initially as a means to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and later as a consequence of competing law enforcement priorities. “During much of the summer, law enforcement personnel across the country were heavily involved in social unrest issues. That contributed to a decrease in citations, which in our state were down 35% in 2020 compared to 2019.”
There might also have been an emotional component to increased speeding, suggests David Pabst, director of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Safety & Technical Services. “Some people may have been driving fast as a way of expressing their frustration during the pandemic,” ventures Pabst, who says traffic fatalities in Wisconsin grew 8.7% in 2020. “A lot of us during COVID were dealing with [mental health challenges]. We were locked down in our homes, but in our cars, we felt a sense of freedom.”
In many jurisdictions, motorists’ craving for freedom also translated into increased motorcycle deaths, according to Pabst, who says motorcycle fatalities in Wisconsin increased 38% in 2020. “Early on during COVID, people were feeling cooped up and needed to get out. For a lot of motorcycle riders, that meant riding their motorcycles,” continues Pabst, who guesses that there were more inexperienced riders on roads during the pandemic, including new riders who may have used stimulus money to buy their first motorcycle and former riders whose skills might have been rusty.
The pandemic’s emotional component is evident in another COVID-era trend: impaired driving.
“During the pandemic, drug and alcohol use increased,” reports Wagner, who cites a NHTSA study of five trauma centers, which found almost two-thirds of seriously or fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana or opioids, between mid-March and mid-July 2020. Before the pandemic, 50.8% of drivers tested positive for at least one drug, compared to 64.7% in the first four months of the pandemic.
“When we saw that alcohol sales were increasing during the pandemic, folks in the traffic safety community held our breath,” Rooney says. “We were hoping that people would stay home and drink, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead, it appears that increases in drinking have spilled out onto our roadways, and that’s really frightening.”
What’s especially frightening about impaired driving is that it’s likely to get worse instead of better, according to Moore. While there will be less opportunity to speed as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, there will be more opportunity to drink and drive as patrons return to restaurants and bars.
“There’s pent-up frustration among the public from not having the opportunity to go out and socialize. So my expectation is that you’ll see more impaired driving crashes as bars and restaurants open back up,” Moore says.
Another concern is seat belt use, as the number of unbelted drivers increased from 21.9% to 28.4%, and the number of unbelted passengers increased from 24.6% to 40.8%, during the first four months of the pandemic, NHTSA reports.
“If you crash, and you’re not wearing your seat belt, all the airbags in the world won’t protect you,” Pabst says.
Putting the Brakes on Traffic Deaths
The pandemic is temporary. Unfortunately, there are indicators that the dangerous driving trends it spawned might not be. “So far, the trends have been the same in 2021 as they were in 2020—if not worse,” Spencer says.
Echoes Pabst, “It’s way too early to say whether this is a permanent shift, but right now, we’re even with last year. In 2020, we hit 100 fatalities on April 15. In 2021, we hit the same mark on the exact same date. That’s not very encouraging.”
Although it’s not encouraging, it is galvanizing, according to Rooney. “There have been significant gains in traffic safety over the last 15 years, but the COVID-19 ‘crash’ that has hit this country has wiped out a lot of those gains,” she says. “It’s sad, and it’s disappointing, but it’s also a call to action. Traffic fatalities are violent deaths, and they can be avoided.”
First and foremost, reversing negative trends requires research, according to NHTSA. “The research we have been doing is very important because it can be used to save lives,” Wagner says. “Our research projects have given us a new reason to call on our traffic safety partners across the country to encourage them to analyze their own data, identify their own traffic safety problems and roll out traffic safety countermeasures to meet those needs.”
Although the pandemic is an unprecedented circumstance, NHTSA’s traffic safety partners believe that tried-and-true countermeasures—the three E’s of traffic safety: education, enforcement and engineering—will save the day.
In California, for example, Rooney’s office in April 2020 issued a joint press release with its transportation safety partners to spread the word about excessive speeding. The following November, it launched its first-ever anti-speeding ad campaign encouraging drivers to “slow the fast down.” Simultaneously, state and local law enforcement conducted targeted speed enforcement efforts while the California State Transportation Agency published a new “Strategic Highway Safety Plan” that incorporates the Safe System approach to roadway design, the goal of which is to design roadways in ways that force drivers to slow down.
“You can’t educate your way to zero deaths. You can’t enforce your way to zero deaths. And you can’t design your way to zero deaths. Really, it takes all three,” Rooney says.
Although traditional tools work, updates are needed. In Wisconsin, for example, the state is spending education resources on marketing via social networks and streaming media platforms. One effort, in particular, stands out: a new “Click It or Ticket” public service announcement featuring Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Donald Driver, produced in the style of Japanese anime.
“We have to double down on what we know works, but we have to be smarter with our money by making sure we’re getting the right message to the right people in the right medium that speaks to them,” Pabst says. “In this case, we’re targeting the young males who we know are most likely to be speeding, driving impaired and not buckling up.”
Georgia’s Moore says it’s just as important to engage partners as it is to engage the public. “The most critical recommendation I can make to help states reduce traffic injuries and deaths is to collaborate,” says Moore, whose office tackles highway safety alongside the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Department of Public Safety, which collectively author the Georgia Strategic Highway Safety Plan. “State partners, federal partners, local law enforcement partners and local EMS partners—all of us need to be able to come together to have a robust dialogue about the dynamics and trends that we’re seeing in our state. We have to be on the same page and sending the same message. That’s how we solve this problem.”
“If this pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that we should have a renewed sense of care for one another,” Rooney concludes. “Millions of families were focused on remaining safe by staying home and wearing masks during the pandemic. Now, this attention to safety needs to translate to the driver’s seat and our nation’s roads, as well. We need to find a way to harness this newfound care for our safety and the safety of others and translate it to road safety. Doing that will help us realize reductions in crashes, fatalities and serious injuries.”
Learn more: AAMVA is partnered with the national Safety council on the Road to Zero Coalition, which has outlined several initiatives to end roadway deaths in the u.s. by 2050.