According to federal researchers, reduced congestion usually means fewer fatal traffic crashes. An economic downturn tends to keep people off the road. And, traffic fatalities have been down, year-over-year.
So why were there so many fatalities during the pandemic?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that the traffic fatality rate rose by about 30% in the period April through June over the first three months of 2020. This is just when the lockdowns started and traffic itself dropped off.
We had fewer drivers on the road. Were those drivers much more deadly than average?
That seems to be the case. There are a few theories about why this might have happened.
Speeders took to the open roads
According to the New York Times, speeding tickets for people going over 100 mph soared by 87% in California during the first month of their statewide lockdown.
In New York City, automated speed cameras issued almost twice as many speeding tickets during that period. Meanwhile, the average speed of rush hour traffic in Queens and Brooklyn surged by over 80%.
In Georgia, state troopers caught 140 drivers going over 100 mph in just a single two-week period in April.
All that extra speed more than made up for the lost volume in traffic. New York officials say that the majority of fatal crashes during the pandemic have involved substantial speed, often taking place on highways outside of Manhattan and often late at night.
Motorcycles seemed like an outlet
Motorcycling fatalities grew at similar rates to overall traffic fatalities. Over the last year, motorcycling fatalities reached the highest level in over 30 years. Crucially, 60% of motorcycling fatalities in New York involved people without a motorcycle license.
Officials said that the percentage of motorcycle accidents grew that involved only the rider being killed or injured. These single-vehicle accidents often occur when the motorcyclist is speeding.
At least one regulator concluded that a lot of inexperienced, unlicensed riders took to the road on motorcycles and did so at high speeds.
Drugs and alcohol were used to cope
The pandemic and lockdowns are stressful, and some people are coping by using more drugs and alcohol than they had in the past. NTHSA says that higher rates of alcohol- and drug-related fatalities followed.
Safer drivers stayed home
While some thrill seekers were taking to the roadways to ease lockdown frustrations, older, safer drivers were more prone to staying home. Older people are more cautious drivers in general, and they were more vulnerable to the pandemic. They were also more likely to stick with the lockdown restrictions.
Ultimately, people who are more cautious on the road may have been more likely to stay home because they were more cautious about the pandemic. That would put a greater percentage of impaired or speeding drivers on the streets.
The pandemic is no excuse for reckless behavior
We’re talking about statistical trends, here, and that could make some people feel like their recklessness was justified. It was not. Even with the roads relatively open, the speed limit is the speed limit. Even with extra stress and worry, drunk driving laws remain the same. Drivers have a legal duty to be sober, to follow the traffic laws, and to behave reasonably safely on the road.
If you have been injured in a crash during this period, explore your legal options for holding a potentially reckless driver accountable.