Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Drivers Going Crazy During Pandemic?

Report finds higher fatalities in state despite fewer accidents during pandemic; crashes often involve alcohol, speeding.

By - Dec 1st, 2020 03:26 pm
Cleanup after a single-vehicle crash on E. Mason St. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Cleanup after a single-vehicle crash on E. Mason St. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant people are driving less, which has led to fewer auto accidents, a new report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum has found. Yet the number of fatal accidents has gone way up — by 17% — this year compared to 2020.

This strange contradiction might make Wisconsin an outlier compared to surrounding states, the report suggested. 

An April report by the Forum found that in Wisconsin, “plunging traffic volumes on the state’s highways coincided with Gov. Tony Evers’ March 13 decision to close K-12 schools and President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration that same day.”  

And more than likely traffic continued to be lower. While reliable state-level estimates of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) were not yet available, “federal estimates of national VMT during the second quarter of 2020 were down 26.3% from the second quarter of 2019,” the report noted. 

And as you’d expect with lower traffic, car crashes were down. From March through July 31, the Forum found, total crashes in Wisconsin declined from 48,433 to 35,750, plunging by 26%, and crash injuries declined from 14,782 to 11,392, a drop of 23%, compared to the same period in 2019.

Yet with lower traffic and far fewer accidents and injuries during this period, fatalities were way up, by 20 percent. 

How is that possible? Because of far higher rates of reckless driving: speeding-related fatalities were up 52%, alcohol-related fatalities were up 50% and drug involved fatalities were up by 46% during this period.

Wisconsin drivers, it seems, have thrown all caution to the wind during the pandemic. Another sign of this was that seat belt-involved fatalities were up 25 percent. 

“Through October, the number of speeding violations [in 2020] cited by the Wisconsin State Patrol for vehicles traveling at speeds of 100 miles per hour or greater had more than doubled this year,” the report noted. 

Nationally there is evidence of more speeding by motorists and more crashes involving drivers with alcohol or drugs in their system during the pandemic, the report notes. And research has found “that nationally, wholesale and retail alcohol sales saw sustained increases during this period, suggesting consumption likely increased as well.” 

But while all this suggests there’s been more reckless behavior by all drivers during the pandemic, the situation might be worse in Wisconsin. Compared to the 5.2% average increase in traffic fatalities from January though October for nine Midwestern states, Wisconsin had a 7.4% increase. 

The difference between Wisconsin and other states, though, seems less striking than what appears to be a national trend during the pandemic. “The stress and isolation associated with the pandemic as well as the rise in unemployment may have contributed to increased levels of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. With fewer vehicles on the road at one time, some motorists may have driven faster – with the outcome being fewer but also more serious crashes,” the report notes

“A key question,” it adds, “is whether the trends that began in March 2020 represent a brief blip or a sustained increase that demands a response by policymakers.” 

Put another way, will the COVID-19 vaccine not only protect us from disease, but lead to safer driving? We’ll see.  

3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Drivers Going Crazy During Pandemic?”

  1. David Coles says:

    Bruce, note that the Wisconsin Policy Forum report avoids using the term “accident.” This is intentional. The word “accident” suggests no fault. Clearly, a case of reckless driving, where the driver is exceeding 100MPH, is no accident. Better to describe these incidents as crashes or collisions, like the WPF report authors did. Thanks for reporting on this troubling trend.

  2. Carolannbrill says:

    I’ve really noticed this on the freeway, drivers 20 plus miles over the speed limit. Dangerous for us trying to stay close to the speed limit.

  3. Thomas Martinsen says:

    I’ve noticed this on city streets. When I drive at 30 miles per hour in 25 mils per hour zones, I have people tail-gating me – suggesting that I should be driving faster. I see them in my rear view mirror. They are often talking on cell phones as they tail gate me. Have they no clue that they are driving in a heavily populated city? Are they ignorant, stupid, or are they distracted?

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