Traffic has dropped by 50% on average in Massachusetts amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the rate of fatalities on the state's roads doubled in April, according to MassDOT.
Transportation officials believe there are two reasons for the troubling trend: Speed and distracted driving.
"It's somewhat of a psychology here that when you have the open road and you're not used to it, that you're going to see what you can do and try to get to your destination as fast as possible. That's something that we do not want people to do," Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said Monday.
April was also the first month that fines kicked in for the state's new distracted driving law. Gulliver said the quick changes people had to make because of the pandemic has made it harder to get people to adjust to putting their phones down behind the wheel.
There were 28 deaths on the state's roadways in April — compared to 27 at the same time last year. But the difference this year is that traffic is half what it usually is, making the death rate much higher, Gulliver said, noting that the numbers are preliminary. In some places, traffic has dropped even more than average — for example, Boston traffic has dropped 70%, Gulliver said.
"You don't need to get any place as quickly as some of these people are driving out there right now," Gulliver said. "We want you to slow down. Pay attention to your surroundings. You have to be aware that the conditions out there are just changed."
The increased death rate comes as more people are home due to business and school closures, and as a stay-at-home advisory and social distancing measures remain in place. Gulliver said this means more people are out walking and biking along roadways.
Two-thirds of the roadway deaths in April occurred on local roads while a third occurred on interstate highways, Gulliver said, and the fatalities occurred in various communities across the state. Of the 28 people who died in April, three were pedestrians and one was a cyclist.
The start of May has already seen some roadway fatalities, including two motorcyclists over the weekend, according to Gulliver.
MassDOT will continue to work with state police and local law enforcement to target any roadways that may be hotspots, Gulliver said. And starting Monday, the state's transportation agency will roll out messages about safe driving on its electronic highway signs.
"We want everybody to make it through this," Gulliver said. "This has been a very, very difficult couple of months. Everybody has sacrificed a lot right now. They've done everything they can to stay home, to stop this virus from spreading. The last thing that we want to do is get people out on our roadways, driving unsafely, having these fatalities build up."