Does COVID-19 Mean Safer Roads?
COVID-19 has changed every facet of our daily lives, including our roadways. The number of miles driven in the first 11 months of 2020 decreased 13.7 percent compared to 2019. Many believe that because there are fewer cars on the road, our highways and back roads have inherently become safer. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Despite fewer drivers, the number of fatalities has increased.
The reasons behind this phenomenon lie in understanding who is driving and why they’re driving more dangerously.
Former Commuters Stay Home
At the height of COVID restrictions in April 2020, a Gallup poll showed that over half of all Americans were working from home. Moreover, business meetings which used to be in person are now more likely to be virtual when possible. Of course, this does not include essential workers like advanced traffic control employees, who must report in person.
As restrictions have lifted and vaccine distribution has increased, the number of people working from home has started to drop. Now, just 33 percent of respondents to the Gallup Poll stated that they were “always working from home.” This number should continue to decrease as more and more workers continue to return to the office and commuter traffic will increase.
However, we may never return to the same level of commuter traffic as prior to the pandemic. According to an update on the Gallup Poll, “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so.”
Public Transportation Restrictions
Use of public transportation has also decreased by a wide margin throughout the pandemic. On average, the number of people using a bus, train, or ride-share service has dropped by 70 percent. For some time, travel on shared transportation was limited to essential workers, like advanced traffic control employees, only.
It would be easy to assume that those who used to use the train or bus were now using their cars to get to work. But because of the overall decrease in miles traveled in 2020, it would be more accurate to say that most of these travelers were working from home instead. Many Americans use the bus and train in urban areas where owning a car is either not financially viable or just not practical. In these cases, there is no car to use as an alternate means of transportation. Instead, the majority of this decrease would seem to come from non-essential workers who reported to work virtually due to pandemic concerns.
Shopping at Brick-and-Mortar Stores Declines
On average, 65 percent of Americans took fewer trips to the store because of COVID-19. At the same time, an average of 45 percent of Americans bought more necessities online. Fewer trips to the store, means fewer cars on the road. Particularly over the holiday season when roads would be bustling with people rushing out to buy presents or traveling to see family members.
According to one study, nearly 70 percent more shoppers planned to shop online instead of in-store compared to last year. On top of that, many stores were pushing their customers to look online, instead of in-store in an effort to curb behavior that may put shoppers and employees at a higher-risk for COVID. More sales were offered online, instead of in-store for Black Friday and throughout the Christmas holidays. For example, Black Friday online sales hit an all-time high of $7.4 billion.
The holiday season used to be one of the most congested times of year for traveling by car. This year the roadways were poised to be emptier than ever before due to concerns about the coronavirus, a rise in online shopping, and intense travel restrictions across the nation.
Fatalities & Dangerous Behaviors Climb
Despite the reduced number of cars on the road, the death rate has unfortunately increased significantly. The mileage death rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven for November 2020 is 1.55, compared to 1.26 in 2019. November alone had a monthly mileage death rate increase of 23.0 percent compared to November 2019.
This increase in fatalities despite the reduced number of drivers can be attributed to a rise in dangerous driving behaviors. One study of COVID-era car crashes found that 27 percent of all drivers were using their cell phones within 60 seconds of impact. Overall phone usage while driving is up 38 percent during the pandemic. Other bad driving behaviors including speeding, which is up 27%, and hard braking, which is up 25%.
While all of that is bad enough, there’s a new distraction to worry about on the road. New research has shown that zooming while driving could be on the rise. Use of Zoom jumped 30-fold in April and has become an integral part of daily life during COVID 19. Unfortunately, this means we’re starting to see it on our roadways as employees quickly zoom into a meeting even when they’re on the road. Clearly, this can be a huge distraction that is more like watching a movie while driving, than talking on the phone.
A Misguided Confidence Boost
Another possible reason behind the increase in roadway fatalities is a boost in driver confidence. With fewer cars on the road, drivers became more confident in their ability to multitask. Without traffic to slow them down, they have free reign to go as fast as they like, believing there is no comparable increase in risk, since they’re all alone.
Unfortunately, this is not true.
Dangerous behaviors like texting, speeding, and hard braking are always going to increase safety risks on roadways, no matter the number of cars. Remember, the majority of drivers on the road are essential workers.
For example, advanced traffic control has not stopped because of the pandemic. Critical infrastructure employees have been working hard to maintain US utilities, roadways, and more. Work zones on highways and back roads still need advanced traffic control to keep cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers safe. An increase in speeding means that you have a reduced timeframe in which to react and can cost you your life, as well as the lives of essential employees who are attempting to perform their jobs.
The reality is that dangerous driving disproportionately increases safety risks for advanced traffic control workers who operate directly next to, or in, the road itself. Next time you drive, remember the essential workers, like those of us at Directional Traffic.
Drive responsibly to keep yourself, and people like us, safe.
Don’t Be Fooled
Just because there are fewer cars on the road does not mean the roadways are necessarily safer. Drivers that are out on the roadways are driving more dangerously than ever before.
In order to stay safe, make sure you’re following the posted speed limits and listening to the instructions of advanced traffic control workers. Say NO to distracted driving. Consider storing your phone in the glovebox or in the back seat so it’s out of reach.
Remember, the law is there for a reason: to keep you safe!