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Fewer drivers on road during pandemic, yet more fatalities: Data shows high-risk motorists to blame

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, it led to fewer drivers on the roads and a significant reduction in the number of miles driven. And yet, U.S. government data shows traffic fatalities surged to their highest level in over a decade. Crashes involving impairment, speeding, red-light running, aggressiveness, and non-seatbelt use all increased, despite fewer vehicles on the roadways.

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To understand the rise in dangerous driving behaviors, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety examined whether the pandemic changed the characteristics of drivers on the road. That data showed that while most drivers reduced the amount of time they spent driving during the pandemic, a small proportion actually increased their time on the roads. Making matters worse, those who increased the amount of time they spent behind the wheel appeared to be riskier than average, even after accounting for their age, gender, and how much they drove.

“Our research finds that higher-risk motorists accounted for a greater share of drivers during the pandemic than before it,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Safety-minded individuals drove less, while many who increased their driving tended to engage in riskier behaviors behind the wheel.”

In Kentucky, traffic fatalities also increased in 2020, despite fewer drivers on the road. A total of 780 people were killed on Kentucky roadways in 2020, 14 more than prior to the pandemic in 2019, according to Kentucky State Police collision data. While fewer drivers on the road seemed to equate to fewer crashes overall in 2020 than in 2019, the increase in number of fatalities indicates the crashes were more severe.

The Foundation’s new research finds while only a small percentage of drivers (4%) increased their driving due to the pandemic, they were younger and disproportionately male—a statistically riskier driver group than the average population.

In addition, those who increased their driving during the pandemic were more likely to report engaging in the following risky driving behaviors in the previous 30 days:

Percent of Drivers Who Engaged in Various Risky Behaviors
During the 30 Day Prior to Survey (October-November 2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions have significantly affected travel behavior and traffic safety in the United States. According to the Foundation’s newest American Driving Survey, during the early months of the pandemic, the average daily number of driving trips made by U.S. adults decreased by an estimated 42% in April 2020, rebounded slightly, and then leveled off in the second half of 2020 at 2.2 daily trips. This was roughly 20% below the 2.7 daily trips in the second half of 2019.

However, when the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its 2020 traffic fatality data, it found an estimated 38,680 people died in vehicle crashes—the largest number of fatalities since 2007. This represents an increase of about 7.2 percent compared to the 36,096 deaths reported in 2019.

That surge in fatalities continued into the following year, with NHTSA’s latest data for traffic fatalities for the first nine months of 2021 showing that an estimated 31,720 people died in crashes from January through September 2021, an increase of approximately 12% compared to the first nine months of 2020. In Kentucky, there was a nearly 7% increase in fatalities during the first nine months of 2021 compared to the prior year.

The increase in traffic fatalities is not a worldwide occurrence. Road deaths have been reported to be lower in almost all other high-income countries since 2019.

“Despite safer roads, safer vehicles and stronger traffic safety laws on the books, the U.S. has witnessed more, not less death on our roadways even at a time when other nations saw dramatic drops,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “What is absolutely clear to AAA is that it will take new action to get us closer to zero traffic deaths.”

The Safe System Approach (SSA) to roadway approach aims to eliminate fatal and serious injuries for all road users. It does so through a holistic view of the road system that first anticipates human mistakes and second keeps impact energy on the human body at tolerable levels. Other countries have leveraged SSA to successfully curb traffic deaths by significant percentages.

Safety tips for drivers to keep in mind:

• Obey speed limits. Drivers tend to overestimate the time saved by speeding. Traveling at 80 mph instead of 75 mph would require you to travel 100 miles of distance before you would save roughly 5 minutes of drive time. Speed kills and isn’t worth the cost. Recent AAA Foundation research shows that small speed increases were enough to raise a driver’s risk of severe injury or death.

• Only drive sober. If you use marijuana or alcohol, or use potentially impairing prescription medications, then don’t drive. And if you’re going to drive, don’t consume these substances.

• Out of sight, out of mind. Stow your smartphone away, turn it to airplane mode, or activate call/text blocking features or apps.

• Buckle Up. Properly wearing a seat belt is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash. Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of serious injury or death in a crash by up to 50 percent.

• Keep Your Cool. AAA encourages drivers to maintain a cool head and focus on reaching their destination safely. If you encounter a dangerous driver, maintain space around your vehicle and contact 9-1-1 if needed.

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

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