Roads Are Safer, But Far from Safe

If there is a silver lining in the social isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the ability to drive from one place to another in much less traffic and at a commensurately lower risk of a car accident.

California’s traffic accidents have decreased 50% since shelter-in-place mandates were issued on March 19, according to a recent study by the University of California, Davis. Pre-COVID-19, an estimated 1,000 automobile collisions occurred each day in the state, resulting in approximately 400 injuries and fatalities. Those numbers have since fallen to 500 collisions and 200 injuries or fatalities daily. Other states with shelter-in-place mandates may be experiencing similar declines since they also have fewer cars on the road.

Despite the positive numbers, vehicle accidents continue to occur. Fewer drivers on the road are encouraging some drivers to flout traffic safety laws like speed limits, according to a mid-April report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). In New York City, for instance, automated speed cameras issued nearly 25,000 speeding tickets on March 27, nearly double the number issued daily in February.

The “alarming speed increases” in some states, such as Massachusetts, Nevada and Rhode Island, has resulted in higher fatality rates, despite a reduction in vehicle collisions, GHSA stated. In Minnesota, on the other hand, both motor vehicle crashes and fatalities have more than doubled compared to previous years, with half the collisions attributed to speeding or negligent driving.  

Another factor contributing to vehicle accidents is distracted driving, a leading cause of traffic accidents and deaths annually. The pandemic has created widespread public fear and anxiety, with many people worried about their health, employment and financial situation. Such cognitive distractions take drivers’ minds away from the road.

Fewer Cars, More Trucks

Although there are fewer cars on the road in many states, this void is being filled in part by trucks and vans needed to deliver essential items like facemasks, gloves, ventilators and hand sanitizers to healthcare facilities and the public at large. What is concerning is these drivers are driving longer hours with less sleep, following the decision by President Trump on March 17 to suspend the 80-year-old so-called “hours of service” limits for truck drivers delivering goods.

Previously, drivers were permitted to work 14-hour days, spending no more than 11 of these hours driving. At present, these drivers can drive as many hours as needed to deliver essential items. Despite the good intentions of the hours of service exemption, driving on less than 6 hours of sleep increases the risk of an accident, according to a 2018 academic study.

It is too soon to know whether or not the uptick in truck and van drivers on the road, many of them working longer hours, will cause safety issues. In 2018, pre-COVID-19, trucking fatalities reached their highest levels in 30 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In addition, the number of pedestrians killed in collisions involving large trucks increased by 13%, NHTSA stated. From 2009 through 2018, pedestrian fatalities jumped 52% and currently account for 17% of traffic deaths, a recent study found.

These statistics are problematic in the many regions of the country where the cooped-up public is heading outside to walk and bike in their neighborhoods. Since mid-March, GHSA noted that both pedestrian and bicycle traffic has “increased exponentially.” In New York City, for instance, more than 250 miles of bike lanes are being built to ease traffic congestion.

Walking or biking outside to escape the confines of our homes may not be as safe as it appears, not when some people are driving at reckless speeds, others are distracted by personal concerns, and many truck drivers are putting in extra-long hours of service.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce these dangers, including resources to focus both truckers and individuals on safe driving practices.

Cities, too, can do their part. Pedestrian and biker safety increases following the installation of bollards and rubber curbs preventing drivers from cutting diagonally across an intersection, according to an April study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 

Less traffic is a boon to get from here to there, but it is not a panacea for safety. Care and common sense must be a constant on the road.

Alan Umaly is president of Westwood Insurance Agency, a wholly owned subsidiary of QBE providing customers with solutions and outstanding service—leveraging over 67 years of expertise through our distinctive expertise and stability in an ever-changing marketplace.