When the pandemic hit early last year, traffic on Costa Mesa’s city streets and freeways plummeted, just as it did across the nation. Roadways opened up as millions began working from home and millions of others were laid off as businesses shut down.
Though traffic levels dropped dramatically, the rate of deadly motor vehicle crashes surged.
Safety experts say the contradictory trends – traffic declining while crashes involving serious injuries and fatalities rise – can be blamed on drivers speeding up on suddenly open roadways.
Risky pandemic driving behavior
“Soon after stay-at-home orders began in 2020, reports emerged of drivers turning emptier roadways into risky racetracks,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. She said perhaps some of the speeding drivers simply wanted the excitement of excess speed, while others were likely “more stressed or willing to take on additional risk because of the pandemic and its numerous repercussions.”
Those risks resulted in an 18 percent jump in traffic fatalities per miles driven in the first half of last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Speed worsens crash outcomes
A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that even small increases in speed can lead to more serious injuries and more deadly outcomes in crashes.
The safety organizations conducted crash tests at three different impact speeds (40, 50 and 56 mph), and “found the slightly higher speeds were enough to increase the driver’s risk of severe injury or death,” said the IIHS on its website.
“A speeding driver may arrive at their destination a few minutes faster, but is the trade-off of getting severely injured or even losing one’s life worth it if a crash occurs?” asked Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The organizations found that at 40 mph, there was minimal intrusion of the vehicle’s engine or other parts in the driver’s space, but at 50 mph, there was noticeable damage to the driver-side door opening, as well as to the dashboard and foot area. And at 56 mph, vehicle interiors were “significantly compromised” and the hundreds of sensors on the crash test dummies registered “severe neck injuries and a likelihood of fractures to the long bones in the lower leg.”
At both 50 mph and 56 mph, the upward movement of the steering wheels “caused the dummy’s head to go through the deployed airbag” and “caused the face to smash into the steering wheel.” Measurements from the sensors told a grim tale: “a high risk of facial fractures and severe brain injury.”
It goes without saying that crashes at 50 mph and above can have the same terrible outcomes regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not. The nation’s health crisis has simply given drivers more opportunities to speed.