The novel coronavirus pandemic has made many of us work from home, wear masks in public and keep physically distant from others. A recent government study also indicates that it has made us worse drivers.
While Americans drove less after the pandemic was declared, they were more dangerous when they did drive, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The agency found that the number of people killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled rose 18% in 2020. During the year's second quarter, the rate was even worse -34% higher than 2019 levels.
Why were people dying on the roads at a faster clip? The study cites three factors:
Seat belt use- The number of people failing to buckle up jumped, especially in the second quarter. At one point, the number of ejections from vehicles per 100 motor vehicle crashes was 1.5, up from 0.7 the year before. The percentage of drivers not using seat belts rose 30%, and the percentage of passengers not using them increased 66%.
Speeding- All those relatively uncongested roads inspired drivers to speed up. One study showed that median speeds in urban areas were up 22% from 2019. In rural areas, the differences between the fastest and slowest vehicles increased.
Drunk driving- Alcohol sales increased in 2020; during the summer months, they were around 20% higher than the year before. States where recreational marijuana is legal saw sales tax revenue jump by between 38% and 45%.
There were similar increases in the percentage of drivers testing positive for these substances. In the first four months of the pandemic, the percentage of alcohol-influenced drivers rose 30%; the rate for those with marijuana in their systems soared 57%.
The other factor: distracted driving
To make matters worse, despite legal prohibitions and widely reported fatal accidents, distracted driving remains an issue. LeithCars.com surveyed 1,021 people and found that 57% of them had confronted a driver about distractions one or more times. Among their complaints:
- 80% confronted a driver about texting
- 64% about internet browsing
- 63% about grooming while driving
- 55% about taking pictures or videos.
In addition, more than a quarter of respondents had ridden with someone who read or texted while driving.
Family and friends are not the only ones doing this. The survey reported that 85% of respondents had experienced dangerous or distracted driving in taxis or ride-sharing vehicles.
Almost half had experienced excessive speed, 40% experienced weaving through traffic, and more than 30% reported drivers tailgating, talking on their phones or chatting too much.
Beside the physical dangers, distracted driving can hit people in the wallet. One insurer estimated that auto insurance rates can rise up to 23% for drivers who receive a ticket for phone use. In some states, the increase can be almost triple that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult enough time for Americans by itself. Risky behaviors like these can only make it worse.
Drivers would do well to fasten their seat belts, slow down, drive sober and keep their eyes on the road.