Heeding public health officials, plenty of people stopped traveling. So yes, traffic deaths did decline, at least in the first half of the year, according to the most recent government data available. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which tracks traffic fatalities, says 16,650 people died on US roads from January through June, compared with 16,988 in the same period a year earlier, a 2 percent dip.
But the volume of traffic fell much more. As a result, more people died per mile traveled—1.25 per 100 million miles in the first half of the year, compared with 1.06 in the same period in 2019, and the highest rate since 2008. From April through June, the figures were even more dire: Deaths per mile traveled jumped by 31 percent compared with 2019, a figure that usually staid government researchers called "striking."
The article by Aarian Marshall goes on to suggest a few possible explanations for this phenomenon. It's not just like how restaurants are having to deal with more assholes; there are obviously plenty of essential workers who still need to drive to commute (because our country is terrible about public transportation, but I digress). For one thing, police have turned their efforts away from traffic enforcement, since there's such a low ROI with fewer people on the road. At the same time, there have been some spikes in drug and alcohol use, especially early on in the pandemic. One study in particular found that 65% of people killed in crashes in the first four months of the pandemic tested positive for at least one drug. While less people on the road means less traffic, it also means people may be tempted to do stupid things when driving—the kind of risky behavior that would be more difficult in streets that were already congested by other risk-averse drivers.
Evidence suggests that the pandemic created, at times, a road safety perfect storm. Open roads tempted speeders. Police reduced traffic enforcement because of low traffic volumes and reduced arrests for minor offenses to protect officers' health, according to a government survey. And many places saw spikes in drug and alcohol use, which public health officials theorize are linked to stress, boredom, and the lack of a regular schedule. In one study, 65 percent of people killed in crashes in the first four months of the pandemic tested positive for at least one drug, and the share of people who tested positive for opioids doubled, to 14 percent. The pandemic also removed from the streets exactly the sort of people who make them safer—older, risk-averse drivers who aren't into road rage or speeding. Curiously:
A government analysis this month found that deaths during those first few months of pandemic were more likely on rural roads, involving male drivers, passengers, and pedestrians age 16 to 24, and among those not wearing seatbelts. A report by Inrix finds that the majority of big US metros saw 25 percent fewer collisions from April through October, but drops were less pronounced in places such as Chicago, Miami, Seattle, and St. Louis.
There's much, much more data at the link.
The Year of Driving Less—but More Dangerously [Aarian Marshall / Wired]
Image: DaleHulm / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)