Across the nation, stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus have led to fewer cars on the roads. Many people would assume that less overall traffic would mean fewer car crashes and fatalities—but the opposite is true.
A new report from the National Safety Council says that in March 2020, when quarantines started going into effect, the number of people killed in car accidents jumped 14 percent per miles driven compared to March 2019. Some of the states hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic experienced the sharpest increases in traffic fatalities. New York saw a 17 percent increase in car accident deaths, Louisiana saw a 23 percent increase, and Connecticut saw a whopping 42 percent increase—despite everyone being ordered to stay home.
What accounts for these alarming numbers? Anecdotal reports suggest that as the number of cars on the road decreased, speeding increased dramatically.
“Disturbingly, we have open lanes of traffic and an apparent open season on reckless driving,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic and crisis, we should take it as our civic duty to drive safely. If we won’t do it for ourselves, we should do it for our first responders, our law enforcement and our healthcare workers, who are rightly focused on coronavirus patients and should not be overwhelmed by preventable car crashes.”
The National Safety Council pointed to other policies implemented to address the COVID-19 pandemic, such as some states no longer requiring road tests before obtaining a driver’s license, as “ill-advised.” The government has also relaxed regulations applied to commercial truck drivers, such as laws that limit the number of consecutive hours a trucker can stay on the road. This was meant to ensure that essential goods would make it to store shelves in time, reducing shortages. However, higher rates of truck accidents might be an unintended consequence of the relaxed standards.
As Memorial Day approaches, safety experts are predicting another holiday-related spike in traffic fatalities. Memorial Day weekend has often meant more drunk drivers and other reckless behavior on the road, but combined with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, Memorial Day 2020 may be especially lethal. The National Safety Council predicts there will be around 366 deaths due to traffic accidents this weekend.
Also, as the weather gets nicer and more people walk and bike in order to escape lockdowns, another danger lurks: pedestrian accidents. An increase in speeding and reckless driving can prove especially dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. What can you do to protect yourself, both as a driver and a pedestrian?
First, though it might be tempting to speed on highways and roads that are emptier than usual, it’s important to obey the speed limit. Speeding is one of the most common factors in fatal car accidents, along with the use of cell phones and other distracted driving. It’s also vital to practice defensive driving and prepare ahead for dangerous situations on the road: always have a designated driver or plan to Uber if you’re going to be drinking during Memorial Day festivities. Never drive when you are too fatigued to remain alert. Try to eliminate distractions—such as eating, applying makeup, or talking on the phone—in order to give your full attention to the road.
As a pedestrian, it’s important to remember that lighter traffic is not an excuse to disregard traffic laws and basic safety measures. As tempting as it might be to cross the road when there are few cars, you should only cross at designated crosswalks. Always wear a helmet while riding a bike, and wear reflective gear at night so drivers can easily see you.
With the unprecedented threat of COVID-19 receiving much of the media’s attention, it is easy to downplay more common, everyday threats like traffic accidents. But as the sharp increase in fatalities in states like New York and Louisiana show, we should be more vigilant than ever on the road. Viewing lighter traffic as a license to speed or drive recklessly can have devastating consequences, for yourself as well as others.