Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced its its preliminary estimates for motor vehicle fatalities in the second quarter of 2020. During the second quarter (April-June), the projected number of traffic fatalities decreased by 3.3 percent. However, the agency also reported an increased fatality rate and a potential trend toward risky driving behaviors in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the full data set is not yet available for analysis, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) is offering insights into these early projections for public awareness:
- Vehicle Miles Traveled: One overall measure of traffic safety is the fatality rate by vehicle miles traveled (VMT). There were fewer cars on the road this spring due to the stay-at-home orders across the country, leading to a 26 percent decrease in the estimated VMT in the second quarter. Despite less travel, however, the fatality rate rose to 1.42 fatalities per 100 million VMT. This is a substantial increase compared to the first quarter estimate of 1.10.
- Disrupted Travel Patterns: Although economic downturns with increased unemployment have historically had decreased fatality rates, the stay-at-home orders had a uniquely abrupt and widespread effect on national travel patterns, beyond a simple reduction in miles traveled. This may have contributed to the increase in the estimated fatality rate. For example, decreased congestion on roadways may have increased overall travel speeds, and thus increased the overall risk of crash fatalities.
- Risky driving behaviors: Initial research has focused on drivers and their potential risky behaviors to help understand the increase in the fatality rate estimate. Several early studies have suggested an increase in risky driver behaviors during the travel pattern changes that resulted from COVID-19. Decreased seatbelt use, increased speeding, and increased driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol are some of the changes in driver behavior that have been reported.
As a clearer picture of the impact of COVID-19 on transportation emerges, research will continue to play a vital role in addressing, predicting, and preventing similar traffic safety issues going forward. VTTI houses 70 million miles of real-world naturalistic driving data that can be used to explore the various factors that can lead to traffic crashes and other safety critical events, such as driver impairment, speeding, distraction due to texting and other risky driving behaviors.. Our experts continue to analyze driving data and develop innovative advancements that can help improve motor vehicle safety. The Virginia Smart Roads, a suite of test tracks, enable the testing and evaluation of advanced driving technologies that can help reduce driver errors and mitigate risky behaviors.