NHTSA: Less Traffic But More Traffic Fatalities During Coronavirus Lockdown

Illustration for article titled NHTSA: Less Traffic But More Traffic Fatalities During Coronavirus Lockdown
Photo: Michael Ciaglo (Getty Images)

As COVID-19 began to take its toll in America, health officials and government leaders advised that we all stay home. Some states made that a mandatory requirement. It makes sense that overall traffic fatalities would decrease. Except, in exchange, fatalities per mile appear to have spiked.

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NHTSA, or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided to do something a little different when it released its 2019 statistics on traffic deaths. It opted to showcase the first half of 2020, too. From the report:

!t the height of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the total traffic volume decreased by more than 16% in the first six months of 2020. Because traffic volumes decreased more significantly than did the number of fatal crashes, the traffic fatality rate per 100 million VMT is projected to increase to 1.25 in the first half of 2020, up from 1.06 in the same period in 2019.

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Basically, that means that, while there have been fewer overall drivers on the road, the ones who have ventured out of the house have been crashing like crazy.

The numbers tell a really interesting story. The second quarter of 2020—which also marked the onset of the pandemic in America—saw a three percent decrease in traffic deaths despite a 16 percent reduction in overall traffic volume. There should have been a lot fewer deaths than there were.

NHTSA went ahead and also included some data about driver behavior that seems pretty self-explanatory. The drivers that remained on the road were the ones who were more likely to engage in risky behavior: speeding, driving drunk, avoiding seatbelts, things like that. I’m no sociologist, but it does make sense to me that the folks avoiding quarantine are also a little more likely to take other risks.

Here are some other interesting statistics from the report:

NHTSA also released a study of seriously or fatally injured road users at five participating trauma centers during this time, finding that between mid-March and mid-July almost two-thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. In particular, the number of such drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March, as compared to the previous six months, while marijuana use increased by about 50%.

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I imagine that many of you hit the road at some point during this pandemic, whether it be commuting to your essential job, delivering groceries to high-risk family members, or taking advantage of your newfound time off to go exploring national parks or isolated campgrounds. That’s fine. I don’t judge. I drove from Texas to Canada, so I’m not going to start pointing fingers and placing blame.

But I do have to say, it seemed like some folks were just a little needlessly reckless on my journey. Emptier roads meant more people went flying by me way above the speed limit. Reduced public transportation saw more of my friends driving when they’d normally take a taxi or a ride share—which is something I imagine applies to folks who had a drink or two during lockdown and needed to head back home. Hell, my brother only narrowly avoided a speeding ticket, but that cop let him off because he was trying to race home before his town’s curfew went into place.

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So, in case you’ve forgotten: wear your seatbelt, drive sober, and slow the hell down.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

batmanbrandon
BatmanBrandon

I’m not an excessive speeder (live in VA, one ticket 12 years ago was enough for me) but I don’t hold up traffic either. 8-10 MPH over the limit on the interstate and maybe 5 MPH over on local roads that are 45-55 MPH posted. After Covid lockdown started to loosen up, I’m getting blown away on the interstate. I’ll cruise at 80 MPH in the local 70 MPH part of I64 and I’m constantly having to scan my rear view much more frequently because people are passing by easily going 90-100 MPH and they’re weaving in and out of traffic.

I’m an insurance adjuster, and while our frequency was way down, it was only down for small stuff like parking lot “dings”. The cars absolutely demolished and totaled has gone up significantly during Covid as a percentage of our overall claims. So less accidents in general, but we’ve seen a big uptick in the bad ones. Part of it is cops aren’t handing out as many tickets due to the courts being shutdown, then backed up, but from my perspective it’s definitely gotten bad out there.