Roadway Safety: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic – Part 1 of 2

For several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended everyday routines and greatly impacted our health and economy. Typically, as economic activity declines, travel decreases, and the risk of being involved in a road collision also decreases. However, recent data from the National Safety Council (NSC) shows otherwise – emptier but riskier roads.

Preliminary estimates from the NSC show a year-over-year 14 percent jump in the U.S. of fatality rates per miles driven in March. The mileage death rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven was 1.22 in March 2020 compared to 1.07 in March 2019. As emptier roads seem to be more lethal, what could be some of the contributing factors?

A perceived lower risk of traffic accidents and an increase of alcohol and drug consumption appear to impact driving safety during COVID-19. Although there is not enough data to make significant conclusions at this point, it is worth exploring the deadly combination of speeding and driving under the influence.

Speeding and Other Risky Behavior

With fewer vehicles on the roads, speeding has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, even when vehicles are not traveling above the speed limit, they are able to travel at free-flow speeds during most hours of the day, as traffic volumes are no longer concentrated during peak hours and congestion levels are lower.

The Australian Road Safety Foundation (ARSF) annual research report shows one in four drivers admit to taking increased road risks during the pandemic. Emptier roads give drivers the perception that the risk of being involved in a crash is lower. The study saw a 17 percent increase in speeding, a 9 percent increase in phone use while driving, and a 5 percent increase in running a red light or stop sign. In the UK, police forces also have reported increases in speeding, including a vehicle caught traveling at more than 150 miles per hour (mph) on a freeway.

Higher travel speeds represent shorter reaction times for drivers to stop and avoid crashes. Speeds also contribute to crash severity. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the likelihood of death for car occupants on a crash with an impact speed of 50 mph is approximately 20 times higher than it would have been at an impact speed of 20 mph.

Impaired Driving

Alcohol sales during the pandemic have increased in several states compared with the previous year averages for the same months. The ARSF study in Australia shows a 3 percent increase in driving after a few drinks during the pandemic.

Driver impairment is also a factor that contributes to both the risk of a road crash as well as the severity of the injuries that result from crashes. WHO estimates that an alcohol-impaired driver has 17 times the risk of being involved in a fatal crash than an unimpaired driver.

Pedestrians and Bicyclists

With the closure of gyms, more people are choosing to walk and bike on the streets as a way of exercising. Further, a shift from several transit trips to walking and bicycle trips occurred due to concerns of the spread of COVID-19 in public transportation.

Pedestrians and bicyclists, referred to as vulnerable road users, have a higher risk of being involved in severe crashes.  The WHO estimates that pedestrians have been shown to have a 90% chance of survival when struck by a car travelling at 19 mph or below, but less than 50 percent chance of surviving an impact at 28 mph. Pedestrians have almost no chance of surviving an impact at 50 mph. Further, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that alcohol involvement for the driver or the pedestrian is reported in almost 50 percent of traffic crashes that result in pedestrian fatalities.

Younger Drivers

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several states waived the road tests for teen drivers applying for a driver license. Studies from the NHTSA show that younger drivers are involved in four times as many reported crashes as the older group. They also are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as older drivers. Loosening restrictions for a group that is already a concern could have impacted road safety during the pandemic.