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Roads are Safer, But Far from Safe


By Alan Umaly, President, Westwood Insurance Agency

If there is a silver lining in these socially isolating days of the coronavirus, it’s the ability to drive from one place to another in much less traffic, at a commensurately lower risk of a car accident.

A recent study by the University of California, Davis, indicates that California’s traffic accidents have decreased 50 percent since shelter-in-place mandates were issued on March 19. Pre-COVID-19, an estimated 1,000 automobile collisions occurred each day in the state, resulting in approximately 400 injuries and fatalities. Those numbers have since fallen to 500 collisions and 200 injuries or fatalities daily.

Other states with shelter-in-place mandates may be experiencing similar declines, since they also can be presumed to have fewer cars on the road. That’s good news in what would have been the annual April observation of Distracted Driving Awareness Month (recently suspended because of the pandemic), as it suggests, many drivers are putting away their cell phones and observing driving safety laws like speed limits.

Despite the positive numbers, vehicle accidents continue to occur. According to a mid-April report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), fewer drivers on the road are encouraging some drivers to flout traffic safety laws like speed limits. In New York City, for instance, automated speed cameras issued nearly 25,000 speeding tickets on March 27, nearly double the number issued daily in February, GHSA reported.

The “alarming speed increases” in some states like Massachusetts, Nevada and Rhode Island has resulted in higher fatality rates, despite a reduction in vehicle collisions, GHSA stated. In Minnesota, on the other hand, both motor vehicle crashes and fatalities have more than doubled compared to previous years, with half the collisions attributed to speeding or negligent driving.

Fewer Cars, More Trucks

Although there are fewer cars on the road in many states, this void is being filled in part by trucks and vans needed to deliver essential items like facemasks, gloves, ventilators and hand sanitizers to healthcare facilities and the public at large. What is concerning is these drivers are driving longer hours with less sleep, following the decision by President Trump on March 17 to suspend the 80-year-old so-called “hours of service” limits for truck drivers delivering such goods.

Previously, drivers were permitted to work 14-hour days, spending no more than 11 of these hours driving. At present, these drivers can drive as many hours as needed to deliver essential items. Despite the good intent of the “hours of service” exemption, a 2018 academic study indicates that driving on less than 6 hours of sleep increases the risk of an accident.

It is too soon to know whether or not the uptick in truck and van drivers on the road, many of them working longer hours, will cause safety issues. In 2018, pre-COVID-19, trucking fatalities reached their highest levels in 30 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In addition, the number of pedestrians killed in collisions involving large trucks increased 13 percent, NHTSA stated. From 2009 through 2018, pedestrian fatalities jumped 52 percent and currently account for 17 percent of traffic deaths, a recent study found.

These statistics are problematic in the many regions of the country where the cooped-up public is heading outside to walk and bike in their neighborhoods. Since mid-March, GHSA noted that both pedestrian and bicycle traffic have “increased exponentially.” In New York City, for instance, more than 250 miles of bike lanes are being built to ease traffic congestion.

Another factor contributing to vehicle accidents is distracted driving, a leading cause of traffic accidents and deaths annually. The pandemic has created widespread public fear and anxiety, with many people worried about their health, employment, and financial situation. Such cognitive distractions take drivers’ minds away from the road.
Walking or biking outside to escape the confines of our homes may not be as safe as it appears, not when some people are driving at reckless speeds, others are distracted by personal concerns, and many truck drivers are putting in extra-long hours of service.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce these dangers. Truckers can benefit by downloading a copy of the QBE Fleet Safety Program, which contains advice on a wide range of topics, including distracted driving. All drivers may find useful tips on how to drive smarter in the QBE Safe Driving Brochure.

Cities, too, can do their part. An April study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that pedestrian and biker safety increases following the installation of bollards and rubber curbs preventing drivers from cutting diagonally across an intersections.

Less traffic is a boon to get from here to there, but it is not a panacea for safety. Even though Distracted Driving Awareness Month has been suspended, care and common sense must be a constant on the road.