Preliminary traffic fatality data recently released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed a surprising finding: while Americans drove less in 2020 due to the pandemic, the year saw the largest projected number of fatalities since 2007.
Why the seeming discrepancy? Charlie Klauer, an associate professor and researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, is available for interview on the report.
"The driving patterns reported during the pandemic are unique and a direct comparison to our previously collected data would be difficult. However, what previous research has shown is that drivers who engage in risky driving behaviors tend to engage in a variety of risky driving behaviors when conducive to do so. Given the much lower overall mileage that is reported by NHTSA, we know that roads are less congested. Thus drivers were able to travel at higher speeds during the pandemic than they would have been able to do if everyone hadn’t been staying home. Higher speeds will increase the number of fatalities which is what we are seeing in the data."
'Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior'
"What we know about driver behavior is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Drivers who tend to engage in risky driving will engage in variety of risky behaviors including speeding, non-seat belt use but also alcohol and drug use. These are notoriously dangerous combinations. We have known this for a long time and the pandemic simply allowed for these behaviors to coexist in a way that resulted in an increase in fatality rates."
"Clearly, the pandemic has greatly altered many aspects of our society — transportation being just one. Speeding, alcohol/drug use, and lack of seat belt use are well-known contributing factors to crashes and fatalities. One thing that we are learning is that lower traffic volumes may not necessarily result in lower fatalities. Thus we need to be smarter about critical interventions to reduce vehicle speed, alcohol/drug use, and increase seat belt compliance, as well as other types of behavior that we know increase crash occurrence (e.g. distracted driving, drowsy driving, etc.)."
Charlie Klauer is a research scientist and the group leader for the Teen Risk and Injury Prevention Group at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). She is also an associate professor in the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department at Virginia Tech. Her primary research involves studying the effects of distraction and fatigue on driving, especially on novice drivers.