April 23, 2020

Good News: Crashes & Traffic Deaths are Down; Bad News: Not by THAT Much!

Not long ago we posted a blog with a “silver lining,” noting the decline in traffic crashes as a result of COVID-19 shut downs: “Traffic has fallen precipitously and in turn the incidents and fatalities that come along with it. By Waycare’s own measure, the city of Las Vegas has experienced a 53% drop in incidents within one month’s time.”

Today, with a large fraction of the US under ‘shelter in place’ orders, resulting in sharply lower traffic density rates, we would expect to see a major decline in emergency braking, crashes, and traffic fatalities. But wait! It’s just not as much as we might have hoped. Crashes should have declined FAR more. So what is going on?

Logic: Lower traffic volumes will reduce the rate of car crashes. Makes sense.

In a StreetsBlog USA Article, Editor Kea Wilson observes, “The number of car crashes is indeed plummeting due to lower traffic volumes on American roads, but the rate of car crashes [crashes per thousand vehicles or per thousand kilometers driven] is actually up in many cities — as are the injury and fatality rates [deaths per crash] for both drivers and vulnerable users.”

Where did our logic go wrong and what is really going on? 

Two things: reckless driving in the absence of slow jammed traffic and higher speeds thanks to emptier roads. Speed is the #1 cause of fatalities. The British Daily Mail writes, “The number of tickets written for driving in excess of 100 mph in California nearly doubled since the state enacted state-at-home order.” Tickets for driving the excessive speed increased by 87%! One driver in San Juan Capistrano was even clocked at 165 mph (and thus arrested). 

Is the higher rate of car crashes confined to certain localities (New York and Boston drivers, for instance, set notoriously bad examples)?

No, it seems widespread throughout the US. Here’s what Streetsblog reported

  • In Minnesota, both car crashes and crash fatalities have more than doubled.
  • In Austin, Texas, preliminary numbers point to a rise in traffic injuries despite a slight dip in collisions.
  • In New York City, though there are few cars still on the roads, traffic fatalities have not declined by much, “Vehicle miles traveled on New York City streets have declined by nearly 80 percent… but pedestrian injuries are down only 58 percent… a discrepancy that can likely be explained by the fact that the rates of driver speeding is actually higher right now.” 
  • In Massachusetts, while car crashes were down, fatality rates for those car crashes are actually on the rise, “Collisions were down 73 percent in Massachusetts between March 15 and April 1 compared to the same dates in 2019, but crash deaths were only down 38 percent.” 
  • In Los Angeles, while there was a 60% drop in traffic volume, there was only a 50% drop in crash fatalities.

What’s the lesson here?

The lesson here is that speeding kills. An example to illustrate this point is the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. In response to gasoline shortages and the crude oil embargo, President Nixon signed a federal law lowering all national highway speed limits to 55 mph. As a result of these speed reductions, fatal car crashes actually declined.

The novel coronavirus has created a huge “natural experiment” on our roads and highways – reducing vehicle density, but increasing speeds. “In the meantime,” Wilson observes, “we should all be cautious about celebrating declines in traffic deaths too soon — especially when there’s still so much more we can do to make every traffic death a thing of the past.” 


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