March 10, 2021

Pandemic -Why Did Fewer Cars on the Roads Not Result in Fewer Fatalities?

Here’s a test that it is not fewer vehicle drivers on the road but lower speed that is the determining factor in crashes and fatalities. The past pandemic year has drilled that home.

There have been some laudable changes during the pandemic in that there were notable decreases in  auto emissions, and many Canadian municipalities including Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver adopted programs to encourage walking and rolling on streets that would normally be dedicated to vehicular traffic.

It would have made sense that  fewer vehicle drivers on the road would statistically reduce traffic fatalities because, you know, not as many drivers. But that’s not the case.

The American National Safety Council reports that over 42,000 people died in traffic fatalities last year, even though there was a 13 percent decrease in miles travelled. Traffic deaths increased by 8 percent in one year, increasing the “rate of death on roads by 24 percent year over year, the sharpest spike measured since 1924.”

Why the increase in fatalities? Speed.

Research done by Traffic Analyses firm INRIX shows that last year vehicle miles travelled dropped 46 percent by early April 2020. But as the number of vehicles dropped, vehicular speeds increased. The vehicular speed increases resulted in a 31 percent increase in traffic fatalities from April to June 2020 in the United States.

Data shows that the cities that previously had the most traffic pre-pandemic saw vehicular speeds increase by 35 percent, with “time savings” of 40 percent  due to the lack of congestion and speeding.

Traffic fatalities rose even though traffic volumes decreased. Faster driving has been proven by statistics and data to increase the likelihood of fatalities.

Laura Bliss in Bloomberg quotes Offer Grembek, the co-director of the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at University of California Berkeley. He  identifies speed as the major factor in fatality increase, as well as the popularity of pickup trucks and SUV’s  (sports utility vehicles) and the increased frequency of delivery trucks.

“The divergence between total collisions and fatalities also highlights a blind spot in traffic safety engineering. Historically the thinking is that a crash is a crash, and if we can reduce total crashes, we’ll reduce the fatalities. Now we have clear evidence that that’s not the case. That demonstrates that we need to focus on eliminating the types of crashes that result in fatal and severe injuries.”

The YouTube video below  shows the speed of vehicles being clocked in the Seattle area during the pandemic.

One more reason to look at  30 km/h  as the default speed limit in cities, and slowing speeds on highways. This has already been done in the Netherlands where highway speeds have been reduced to lower carbon emissions and also to save lives.



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  1. impairment – which is a very significant underlying factor in serious speed-related crashes (2/3rd’s of speed-related fatalities in BC have drug and/or alcohol presence).

    Drug and Alcohol Prevalence in Seriously and Fatally Injured Road Users Before and During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.

    From the abstract:

    The results indicate drug prevalence was high among seriously and fatally injured roadway users before the public health emergency began and was even higher during, especially for alcohol, cannabinoids (active THC), and opioids. Drivers in particular showed significantly higher overall drug prevalence during the public health emergency, with 64.7% testing positive for at least one active drug, compared to 50.8% before. Drivers also showed an increase in testing positive for two or more categories of drugs going from 17.6% before to 25.3% during the public health emergency. Of particular note, active THC was more prevalent among drivers during the public health emergency than alcohol (32.7% versus 28.3%), and opioid use among drivers almost doubled from 7.5% to 13.9%. Overall, the results of this study suggest the highway safety community should be concerned about the impact of other drugs as well as alcohol. In particular, the observed cannabis and opioid prevalence rates before and during the public health emergency could be indicative of a growing problem

  2. Tragically, none of this is surprising. See my comments on this Thread that can be summarized as follow:
    “The top killers on the roads include substance abuse, speed, and negligence/distraction”

    The suggestion of dropping speed limits to 30 km/h can work in limited high density circumstances, but simply creates a greater enforcement problem thus is NOT a complete solution.

    Multiple solutions are necessary to achieving “Vision Zero”, which includes both infrastructure and other system improvements that unfortunately will be highly toxic to politicians who wish to avoid the massive intervention necessary to stamp out the violent behaviors occurring every day.

    And by comparison, in 10-12 years, roads deaths in Canada will have killed as many Canadians as Covid has achieved in this past year. So it appears that Canadian politicians are willing to act, with serious intent, when the danger is inescapably evident, but silent killers that occur at a rate of about 5-6/day across the country are insufficient to warrant more aggressive action?

    But where must we look for guidance to what is possible. The commercial transportation system has safety standards and practices that lead to few serious events in any given year. For example, years ago when we jointly studied with ICBC the much promoted (and faulty) concept of mileage-based insurance, we discovered that high-levels of experience COMBINED with recurrent professional training were excellent indicators of road safety capability.

    So if we truly wish to save lives on the road that will then lead to a better active mobility environment, the most effective solutions require a massive shift in ab initio training, re-current capacity building, ongoing increases in certification standards, supported by a far more aggressive enforcement stance. None of this will be easy and will be resisted by the public that the state is over-reaching, thus a massive education campaign becomes necessary to demonstrate the costs of inaction.

    And speaking of costs, aside from saving the lives of our loved ones, all this would pay for itself by massively reducing the hard costs associated with the current levels of road carnage.

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