No one needs to be convinced of the pandemic’s widespread effects on the health and economic well-being of the nation. Often overlooked in the turmoil of the past year has been the ways in which the pandemic has changed America’s roadways.
A study by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that traffic across Florida had dropped by an average of 47.5 percent by the end of March last year compared to March 2019. The dramatic drop in traffic here was echoed by a 41 percent drop nationwide, according to transportation data firm Inrix.
Despite reduced traffic throughout 2020 in Florida and around the U.S., traffic fatalities increased nationally, according to transportation and law enforcement officials.
Distraction among familiar crash factors
Experts say the contradiction – reduced traffic and increased deadly wrecks – is explained by three familiar factors in motor vehicle crashes: distracted driving, impaired drivers and excess speed.
Since the onset of the pandemic about a year ago, distracted driving rates increased across the nation, according to a report from Zendrive. The transportation data science company analyzed billions of miles driven by millions of drivers, finding that “there has been an alarming increase in phone usage frequency.” The company says people aren’t using their phones for greater periods when they’re behind the wheel, “but they are using their phone more frequently.”
Significant increase in impairment
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of five hospital trauma centers conducted between March and April of last year found that nearly two-thirds of seriously or fatally injured drivers tested positive for at least one substance, including alcohol, cannabis and opioids.
The figure was a huge jump from the previous six months when slightly more than half of drivers tested positive.
Surge in speed
The third major contributor to the carnage was excess speed. Multiple studies in multiple states found that when drivers have encountered streets, highways and roads emptier than what was usual pre-pandemic, they have reacted by driving faster.
A study by the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that pre-pandemic speeds on Houston freeways averaged less than 45 mph, but the average surged to 65 mph when those highways weren’t clogged with commuting workers.
The result: crashes are occurring at higher speeds, which dramatically increases the likelihood of more serious injuries and fatalities.
“Perhaps some people always wanted the experience of driving too fast on a near-open highway,” Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety told Florida Patch. “Maybe some are more stressed or willing to take on additional risk because of the pandemic and its numerous repercussions.”
Experts and government officials are hopeful that a combination of vaccinations and economic recovery will enable the national mood to lift. The hope is that a turn for the better will result in reductions in impaired and distracted driving, as well as a lowering of speeds.