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Although people have been driving less since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the traffic death rate has gone up.
Technically, absolute traffic deaths have decreased. But when you factor in the drop in vehicle miles traveled, people are being killed on our roads at a higher rate.
Experts blame higher travel speeds due to emptier roads.
MARCH 2020 UPDATE: Motor vehicle death rate up 24% in 2020 compared to 2019—the biggest increase in 96 years—despite drops in miles driven, according to the National Safety Council.
People Are Driving Less
Coronavirus took a major toll on health, especially for Latinos. But the virus also forced lockdowns and isolation across the country, slowing the economy and travel.
Travel on roads and streets dropped 25.7% in May 2020, compared to May 2019.
This trend continued into June, with a 13% decline in 2020 compared to June 2019, according to preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration, which are the latest available data.
There are differences among states as well as differences between urban vs rural roads. For example, travel in Tennessee and Arkansas declined by less than 6% in June 2020 compared to June 2019 while travel in Washington and Massachusetts declined by more than 20%. Additionally, during the same time, travel declined 11.9% on rural roads compared to 14.6% on urban roads.
Overall, total street and road travel for the first six months of 2020 dropped 16.6% compared to the same time last year.
People Are Dying on the Road at Higher Rates
With the drop in vehicle travel, wouldn’t vehicular deaths also drop?
Absolute traffic-related deaths declined 5.9% from the first half of 2019 to the first half of 2020, according to an analysis of 22 states by Sam Schwartz, a national transportation firm.
However, when factoring the lower amount of vehicular travel, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased 12.7% compared to the same time last year, according to the Sam Schwartz analysis which looked at traffic death counts per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
Had the fatality rate for the first six months of 2020 remained the same as 2019, an estimated 719 people would still be alive.
“While this analysis does not identify underlying causes for the increased fatality rate, higher travel speeds is a likely factor given emptier roads and greater opportunity for speeding,” according to Sam Schwartz.
To reduce preventable injuries and deaths, cities need to reduce overall vehicle travel and reduce the speed in which vehicles travel.
“This increase in traffic fatality rates is tragic and unacceptable,” said Richard Retting, a widely recognized traffic safety expert and the national practice leader for safety and research at Sam Schwartz. “While it is good to see a decline in absolute numbers of traffic fatalities during the Covid era, the overall picture remains bleak due to increases in fatalities rates. We should have seen very large reductions in traffic deaths due to large reductions in VMT. Sadly, that did not happen.”