COVID-19 traffic drop lowers highway fatalities

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December 14, 2020

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For those looking for a silver lining in stay-at-home orders and businesses encouraging employees to telecommute, American roads got safer from April to June. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates traffic fatalities fell 3.3% during the second quarter, when many Americans were stuck indoors.

However, those safety improvements may be short lived. NHTSA researchers note that by one metric, roads were less safe during shutdowns than when they were full of commuters. The agency measures fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), historically to control rising numbers of cars and trucks on the road. VMT calculations show that if you double the number of cars on the road but maintain the same number of fatalities, each driver is much safer. However, during the pandemic, VMTs fell more sharply than fatalities, so the statistics show roads being more dangerous when empty. Total traffic volume fell more than 16% in the first six months of 2020 while fatalities fell only 3.3%. 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.

NHTSA’s study suggests that during the height of the national public health emergency, drivers took extra risks, driving faster on semi-empty roads, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Traffic data indicate average speeds increased during the second quarter, and examples of extreme speeds became more common.

“We are concerned by the trend since April showed an increased fatality rate,” says NHTSA Deputy Administrator James Owens. “Now, more than ever, we should be watching ourselves for safe driving practices and encouraging others to do the same. It’s irresponsible and illegal to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, taking risks not only with one’s own life, but with the lives of others.”

The larger, multi-year trend is the gradual reduction in highway deaths, driven primarily by safety technologies such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). In 2019, 36,096 people died in crashes, down 2% from 2018, even though vehicle miles traveled increased by nearly 1%. https://www.nhtsa.gov