The Year of Driving Less—but More Dangerously

In theory, bringing society to a screeching halt should curtail traffic deaths. No one’s going to bars and then driving home; few are commuting to work; the occasional trip to the grocery store does not demand excessive speed.

So when swaths of the country ground to a halt this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it was easy to predict the results. Heeding public health officials, plenty of people stopped traveling. So yes, traffic deaths did decline, at least in the first half of the year, according to the most recent government data available. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which tracks traffic fatalities, says 16,650 people died on US roads from January through June, compared with 16,988 in the same period a year earlier, a 2 percent dip.

But the volume of traffic fell much more. As a result, more people died per mile traveled—1.25 per 100 million miles in the first half of the year, compared with 1.06 in the same period in 2019, and the highest rate since 2008. From April through June, the figures were even more dire: Deaths per mile traveled jumped by 31 percent compared with 2019, a figure that usually staid government researchers called “striking.”

When the pandemic lockdowns started, “there were people who were saying we’re going to have a deathless day” on the roads, says Robert Wunderlich, a transportation researcher and the director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas Transportation Institute. “Then we turned around, and that’s not what happened. It’s really disconcerting, to be honest.”

The numbers highlight how Covid-19 has spawned other public health emergencies, as the social effects and officials’ failures to grapple with the pandemic bleed into every part of American life.

Now, researchers are pondering whether the relative spike in deaths is a blip or a sign of deeper problems on roadways—the kind that demand attention from law- and policymakers. “This is something that transportation analysts and researchers are going to be studying for a long time,” says Bob Pishue, senior economist at Inrix, a traffic analytics firm.

Evidence suggests that the pandemic created, at times, a road safety perfect storm. Open roads tempted speeders. Police reduced traffic enforcement because of low traffic volumes and reduced arrests for minor offenses to protect officers’ health, according to a government survey. And many places saw spikes in drug and alcohol use, which public health officials theorize are linked to stress, boredom, and the lack of a regular schedule. In one study, 65 percent of people killed in crashes in the first four months of the pandemic tested positive for at least one drug, and the share of people who tested positive for opioids doubled, to 14 percent. The pandemic also removed from the streets exactly the sort of people who make them safer—older, risk-averse drivers who aren’t into road rage or speeding.

The effects of “pandemic driving” seemed to be worse in some places than others. A government analysis this month found that deaths during those first few months of pandemic were more likely on rural roads, involving male drivers, passengers, and pedestrians age 16 to 24, and among those not wearing seatbelts. A report by Inrix finds that the majority of big US metros saw 25 percent fewer collisions from April through October, but drops were less pronounced in places such as Chicago, Miami, Seattle, and St. Louis.

Wisconsin is one of those terrible outliers. An analysis from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that total crashes this year through July were down 26 percent compared with the year earlier; crash injuries were down 23 percent. But fatal crashes jumped 17 percent, and crash fatalities climbed 20 percent, way outpacing national and even regional trends—even though fewer people were driving. Parts of Milwaukee had seen jumps in road fatalities even before the pandemic, and the state has long had a higher ratio of alcohol-involved deaths, though the numbers had been trending down.

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