The pandemic has given rise to a paradoxical trend: less cars on the roads but more traffic-related deaths.
In the month of May alone, NBC News reported that motor vehicle fatalities surged over 23%. Indeed, according to a report by the National Safety Council, it marked the third straight month of an increased risk of traffic-related death over previous yearly averages.
Paradoxically, U.S. highway fatalities rose sharply in 2020 even as the number of miles driven by motorists fell. The worrisome trend comes during a time when one would intuitively think that less traffic would result in lower fatalities.
“At a moment when the country should be reaping a safety benefit from less traffic, the roads are riskier, threatening to reverse traffic safety gains made over the last few years,” the NSC said in a statement.
Preliminary data from the NSC shows that at least 42,060 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes last year, an increase of 24 percent per miles driven, the biggest year-over-year increase since 1924.
According to the statistics, for every 100 million miles driven, the death rate in May rose to 1.47, compared to 1.19 in 2019.
Especially now that the country is beginning to open up again and more cars are going to be on the roads, it is crucial to address the danger posed. Auto safety experts isolated a few contributing factors that could hold the key to the paradox.
One theory, according to experts, is cognitive overload from overusing technology while working at home – especially with regards to videoconferencing technology (Zoom). In short, they blame distracted driving due to technology.
“After you get into your car, you may be operating on autopilot,” Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said. “I think computer use, in general, can overload you.”
Sam Abuelsamid, principal auto analyst at Guidehouse Insights, also theorized that simply not driving frequently over the past year has caused people’s skills to rust. Add to that a heightened emotional state from the pandemic and being locked down in one’s house on Zoom all day, it could severely impair one’s driving abilities.
To support this theory, a study by Root Insurance found that 54% of 1,819 adult drivers surveyed had trouble concentrating on the roads after videoconferences. However, distracted driving is not a new trend per say. With or without COVID, car crashes due to distractions from smart phones have been increasing.
Russ Rader, an official with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told NBC News, “The problem with distraction is huge and it’s not just checking email or texting. There’s the risk of cognitive distraction, looking at the road while your thoughts are elsewhere. That zoning out may mean you don’t notice a dangerous situation soon enough to react.”
Now that the country is beginning to open up again, there is even greater concern about road safety. Officials warn that there will be 120,000 more cars on the road compared to 2019. In addition to the sheer number of cars, officials expect there to be more frequent short-distance driving due to working at home and the need for short trips, as well as increased deliveries.
To combat this dangerous trend in the wake of loosening COVID restrictions, Nassau County Police is cracking down on distracted driving.
According to a CBS New York report, Nassau police, who have felt the effects of distracted driving first hand, believe that it resulted in three fatal crashes over the last three weeks, including the death of one of their own – Trooper Joseph Gallagher, who was hit by a distracted driver texting and using social media.
The traffic safety problem has also gotten the attention of lawmakers. For example, Alabama’s House of Representatives recently shot down a proposal by a narrow margin that would fine people for using a smart phone while driving.
According to the AP, it was rejected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for its lack of enforceability. Democrats also worried that it could be used to target minorities for traffic stops.
Although a major factor, distracted driving is not the only cause of increased road risks. Since the pandemic lockdowns, police on average have cut back on enforcing minor traffic violations, which could be leading to more chaos on the roads.
Police cited COVID as the reason for fewer traffic stops.
“We cut down our shifts to limit our exposure…there was a full-blown hiatus on stopping (motorists) unless they did something really egregious,” said Kevin Nowak, chief of police in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan.
According to Car and Driver magazine, the sentiment from law enforcement was to significantly cut back on pulling drivers over to abide by social distancing rules. Now that vaccines are rolling out and the pandemic is under some control, perhaps the enforcement of traffic rules will return to normal.