The coronavirus made Massachusetts roads noticeably more empty during 2020, but did little to stem another public health issue: the number of people killed by car crashes.
There were 334 deaths on Massachusetts roads in 2020, according to a state database. Although that is slightly fewer than 2019′s total of 337, it came despite significant reductions in roadway traffic and overall crashes. And while the number of pedestrians killed in crashes is down, the number of motorcyclists and bicyclists who died increased.
The death figures are all the more remarkable because the number of total crashes in the state during 2020 fell by more than 40,000, according to the database, meaning those crashes that did occur were more likely to be deadly. Traffic specialists have theorized that, with the roads emptier, more motorists were driving faster, increasing the risk of fatalities. Indeed, the number of tickets for high-speed driving was also on the rise.
The crash and fatality numbers are preliminary and subject to revision. But they reflect a trend that played out across the country last year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that, after three straight years of declines, fatal crashes were up by 4 percent in the first nine months of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. After adjusting for the fewer overall miles driven, the fatality rate actually increased 23 percent in 2020, compared to the year before.
“To be honest, I was surprised when deaths went up so significantly,” said Cathy Chase, of the Washington, D.C., organization Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. She called on states and the federal government to adopt new laws for the roads and regulations for cars to improve safety.
“If it took a pandemic and the emptying of roads to advance these measures, then it’s given light to much-belated solutions to problems that have been on the roads for a long time,” Chase said.
In Massachusetts, the roadway fatalities included 185 drivers and 33 passengers. The crashes also killed 51 motorcycle operators, an increase from 2019, as well as 10 cyclists. The 50 pedestrian fatalities, meanwhile, represented a significant decrease from 76 in 2019, according to the database.
The problem was most apparent in the early days of the pandemic, when severe lockdown measures practically emptied highways and roads. Yet in April, there were four more deadly crashes than in the year before, according to the state’s numbers. State officials at the time sounded an alarm and began pushing for increased enforcement while implementing a new messaging campaign on electronic highway signs to urge safe driving.
“We were noticing that we were having a sharp influx of fatalities when we had less than 50 percent of the volume,” said Neil Boudreau, a traffic engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “That was shocking, but also trending along with the fact that perhaps people were driving faster than they had been.”
Indeed, increased speeds, made more possible by lower traffic volumes, have been widely cited by officials and experts as a likely cause of the higher crash rates. With fewer cars on the road, people may have seen wide-open space ahead and sped up, resulting in more-violent crashes.
Traffic rebounded in the summer but still trailed pre-pandemic levels, while the fatality count nearly mirrored the 2019 total.
“Even a slight increase in speed can literally mean the difference between life and death, or minor and serious injuries,” said AAA Northeast spokeswoman Mary Maguire.
Moreover, the number of violations involving speeds over 100 miles per hour increased by about 40 percent last year, according to state numbers. While that may partially reflect increased enforcement amid the safety concerns, the numbers also reflect a higher percentage of all citations, compared to 2019.
David Procopio, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said it is the department’s “educated speculation” that lower congestion yielded higher speeds and more deadly conditions. But he stressed that is unproven.
In Greater Boston, a higher portion of fatal crashes occurred during the morning and afternoon periods, compared to 2019 — which would typically align with rush hour, when traffic is heaviest and slowest.
However, many crashes occurred at times and on days not normally associated with heavy traffic volumes. And Boudreau cautioned that fatalities, while tragic, are small enough in number to see significant fluctuations from year to year. They can also be difficult to compare from one year to the next because of changing variables of crashes, such as causes and locations. He added that the fatality rate improved in the latter part of 2020 as driving increased.
There would be troubling implications for transportation policy if lower traffic levels — a longtime goal of frustrated commuters and policy makers alike — were to bring a lasting fatal downside.
Boudreau said that highlights the importance of designing roads that will lower speeds and reduce swerving from lane to lane. He suggested possibly using rumble strips on more roads and narrowing lanes in certain areas.
Traffic volume, however, may not be the only factor. Drivers may have also been behaving differently because of the pandemic.
Federal research issued in 2020 suggested the pandemic may have led to higher death rates from drunken driving or not wearing seat belts. Massachusetts data do not reflect that, though the numbers are subject to change. And the increase in fatalities could point to people driving more riskily during the pandemic, some advocates say.
“There are so many rules that people are expected to follow about wearing a mask or being risk-averse,” said Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance. “I think people saw their cars as this COVID risk-free zone . . . and decided that following the rules of the road were not what they were going to do.”
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.