During the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on Safety May 11-13, members discussed a number of ways to ensure a tight focus on improving traffic safety despite uncertainties created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the fall election season.
[Above photo by the Montana DOT.]
“Alongside the threat of COVID-19, this committee continues to address another more chronic health crisis – death and injuries on our highways,” Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation and the committee’s chair, explained during the meeting – held via Zoom due to COVID-19 stay-at-home directives.
“This is a good time to re-energize our efforts and elevate our safety discussions as it is a time of transition for many of us, for state and national elections [later] in 2020 will change the composition of AASHTO and our organizations,” he noted.
[Editor’s note: Tooley detailed his traffic safety philosophy during a video interview in 2019.]
He said AASHTO’s safety committee faces several challenges: maintaining the positive momentum on traffic safety issues through the COVID-19 outbreak and upcoming elections, while dealing with new factors developing in part due to the viral pandemic.
“While we’ve seen an overall decrease in crashes due to the traffic volume declines that have occurred during the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen an increase in lethality” due to an increase in speeding incidents, Tooley said.
John Milton, director of enterprise and risk management at the Washington State Department of Transportation and vice chair of AASHTO’s safety committee, added that while some states are witnessing higher fatalities due to speeding, others are seeing a shift in injuries and fatalities to county roads.
Jim Tymon, AASHTO’s executive director, echoed Milton’s observation – noting that while “just looking at sheer numbers” that traffic fatalities “are down a little bit during COVID-19,” unsafe behaviors such as speeding are increasing. “Thus we are seeing more serious crashes and fatalities because drivers are operating at higher speeds,” he said.
Essie Wagner, research liaison at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, corroborated that view – pointing out that while early estimates indicate overall traffic fatalities declined by 1.2 percent in 2019, “we’re seeing a lot of reports on our side of the house about increases in speeding and impaired driving while roads are empty.”
Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations for the Governors Highway Safety Association, expressed concern that the recent trend of excessive speeding – often over 100 mph – may impact vehicle crash rates in the near term.
“While we’ve seen a decline in deaths per million vehicle miles traveled, I am not so sure we’ll see a decline in overall crashes because of these higher speeding incidences,” he said.
That’s why Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation and AASHTO’s 2019-2020 president, stressed that “we can’t let COVID-19 distract us from our goal from reducing the loss of life on our national roads. While fatalities are down slightly overall on a general basis, an increase in distracted driving and speeding may push up the fatality rate.”
[Editor’s note: Reducing both traffic fatalities and injuries is one of McKenna’s key “emphasis areas” for his one-year term as AASHTO’s president.]
To that end, he said “we cannot wait” for technology to solve those problems. “We need to aggressively use countermeasures we know that work right now and identify other ways we can drive both [traffic] injuries and fatalities down,” McKenna stressed.
“We can’t be diverted from our safety mission despite the fact that our personal and professional lives have undergone extraordinary change due to COVID-19,” he added. “While I don’t think anyone could have seen this coming, we must stay the course. We have to remain steadfast in efforts to examine new methods to improve safety. That’s more important now than ever.”