- New data from the National Safety Council (NSC) found the U.S. traffic fatality rate jumped 23.5% in May, compared to the year prior, despite the number of vehicle miles driven in that month dropping 25.5% amid pandemic-related stay-at-home orders.
- While causation of this increase has not been officially determined, NSC President and CEO Lorraine Martin and fellow panelists at a webinar Tuesday cited increased stress and anxiety among drivers, and increased alcohol sales and use of marijuana, among other reasons. "We do know that transportation and getting goods to and from our households has certainly increased and that last-mile has been a very big focus for a lot of safety-related issues for companies, as folks are getting their goods dropped off on their front porch or their doorstep," Martin said.
- In response to these estimates, NSC developed a playbook of recommendations and guidance for employers to reference as residents and commuters return to the workplace. The playbook centers on providing safe routes to work, prioritizing roadway safety and increasing safety among transportation workers.
Millions of Americans have been under varying degrees of stay-at-home and social distancing orders since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic washed over the U.S. in March. The NSC was optimistic that reducing the number of vehicles on the roads would result in a "traffic silver lining" of more lives saved, Martin said — yet the data painted a different story.
"The pandemic has actually exposed our national road safety culture for what it really is: deeply flawed and unfortunately in need of some immediate action," Martin said. "It’s clear that our open roads have created somewhat of an open season for reckless driving."
While there are a number of theories on why these preliminary estimates are so high, not enough time has passed for "anyone to legitimately claim that we truly understand why we’re seeing these trends," said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA, during the roundtable discussion.
According to the FMCSA's latest data, 4,657 large trucks were involved in fatal crashes in 2017, while 56,422 large trucks were involved in injury crashes and 102,973 were involved in towaway crashes. For 73% of the large trucks in fatal crashes, an event involving another vehicle, person, animal, or object in the large truck’s lane or encroaching into it occurred just before the incident. Loss of truck driver control or other driver movement error occurred before the incident for 23% of large trucks in fatal crashes.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), said on the call that speed is another "dramatic problem" contributing to the increased traffic fatality rate, especially as drivers take advantage of open roads. Yet a number of jurisdictions have recently looked to increase speed limits, which Adkins said could be consequential.
"Speed typically and historically has been a forgotten issue in highway safety," Adkins said. An estimated one-third of all traffic crashes are due to speed, he said, "yet we've never given it the priority that it really deserves ... because everyone speeds. We all do it, we're all guilty of it and there's never been public support, or really doing anything serious about it."
Adkins said it is "absolutely critical" for law enforcement officials to crack down on speed limits, but that it's equally critical for such enforcement to be fair and data-based. He said recent conversations around policing and racial injustice will impact enforcement practices, and GHSA has a working group to help mitigate related challenges.
The CVSA's 2020 Operation Safe Driver Week had an emphasis on speeding. The organization said it had heard concerns that less traffic on roads, because of coronavirus-related shutdowns, was making it easier for more drivers to break speed limits.
While it will take some time for NSC to analyze these new findings and determine causation, Martin said she is encouraged by efforts among stakeholders, particularly the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to educate the public on roadway dangers during the pandemic.
"Let's make sure we come out of this stronger," Martin said, "because there’s really no other choice."