Despite a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report suggests the rate of car accident deaths increased dramatically, as empty roads allowed drivers to engage in riskier behaviors and travel at higher speeds.
The analytics company INRIX, which specializes in roadway behavior, released a new study last month, which indicates stay-at-home orders issued by many states to prevent the spread of the coronavirus outbreak contributed to a 31% increase in fatal car accidents during the second quarter of the 2020 calendar year.
According to researchers, by early April 2020 the nation’s vehicle miles traveled (VMT) dropped by approximately 46%, and did not rebound to normal pre-pandemic levels until late June. Throughout this timeframe researchers indicate many states also recorded drastic reductions in vehicle collisions, with highly populated cities such as New York witnessing a 38% reduction.
Despite motor vehicle collisions decreasing and the nations travel averages declining by almost half, roadway fatalities recorded from April 1, 2020 through June 30, 2020 did not change accordingly.
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) indicates that during this three month period a total of 8,870 people died in car crashes, decreasing by only 3.3% when compared to 2019.
Researchers note that although roadways were being significantly less traveled, they were also less safe to travel with people exceeding speed limits and engaging in risky driving behaviors.
A study issued earlier this year by INRIX discovered similar findings, after analyzing driving behaviors in several major cities in the United States, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Detroit.
Their findings indicated travel speeds on interstate highways, state highways and expressways in the first week of April were as much as 75% higher than in January and February 2020, and those trends likely continued through the end of June when stay-at-home orders were eased.
The April 2020 report found a 60% increase in the amount of speeding tickets issued by speed camera traps in New York in March, when compared to a year earlier, while Washington D.C. StreetLight Data recorded a 20% increase of speed camera tickets issued. Included in those violations, researchers found the amount of drivers violating speed limits by going 21-25 mph over the limit increased by nearly 40%.
Another study published in the October 2020 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention, looked at traffic patterns during the several month period of statewide lockdowns to determine whether they reduced the overall rate of vehicle collisions and their severity.
According to the findings, there was an overall reduction in daily road accidents, from 17.9 to 14.4 per day. However, despite that decrease, the rate of serious injuries and fatalities from car accidents actually increased from 3.4 per day before lockdown to 3.7 per day after the lockdowns.
Many of the COVID-19 lockdown traffic studies have identified and supported a common theory, that open and cleared highways alter driving behaviors, which result in increased speeds.
NHTSA officials claim speeding is involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities annually, accounting for nearly 10,000 deaths in 2018 alone.