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As more people start commuting to work and school after a year of staying indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ll be returning to streets that have gotten reportedly deadlier.
In 2020, an estimated 42,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S., and 4.8 million more were injured. That represents an 8% increase over 2019, the largest year-over-year increase in nearly a century. This occurred even as the number of miles driven fell by 13%, according to the National Safety Council.
A huge jump in road fatalities started showing up in the data almost as soon as the pandemic began, despite lockdown orders that kept people home and reduced the number of drivers on the road, said Tara Leystra, the National Safety Council’s state government affairs manager. “It’s a trend that started before the pandemic, but I think it really accelerated this year,” Leystra said.
The emptier roads in California led to more speeding, which then led to more fatalities, since the collisions increased in severity. Citations issued by the state highway patrol for speeding over 100 miles per hour roughly doubled to 31,600 during the pandemic’s first year. As it turned out, congested traffic had been keeping people safer before the pandemic, executive director of the Vision Zero Network Leah Shahum said.
Laura Friedman, a California Assembly member who introduced a bill this year to reduce speed limits, called this new phenomenon a nationwide public health crisis. “If we had 42,000 people dying every year in plane crashes, we would do a lot more about it, and yet we seem to have accepted this as collateral damage.”
California has been grappling with how to reduce traffic deaths, a problem that has worsened nationwide over the past decade but gained urgency since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers from across the country have introduced dozens of bills to lower speed limits, set up speed camera programs, and promote pedestrian safety.
Friedman wants to reform how California sets speed limits on local roads. The state still uses the 85th percentile method, an old federal standard many other states are trying to move away from. It is defined as the speed at or below which 85% of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point. Every 10 years, state engineers survey a stretch of road to see how fast people are driving. Then they base the speed limit on the 85th percentile of that speed, or how fast 85% of drivers are going.
“Every time a survey is done, a lot of cities are forced to raise speed limits because people are driving faster and faster and faster,” said Friedman. Even before the pandemic, a California task force had recommended allowing cities to have more flexibility to set their speed limits, and a federal report found the 85th percentile rule similarly inadequate to set speeds.
AB 43 would allow local authorities to set some speed limits without using the 85th percentile method. It would require traffic surveyors to consider areas like work zones, schools, and senior centers, where vulnerable people may be using the road, when setting speed limits.
Moreover, two more state bills would reverse California’s ban on automated speed enforcement by allowing cities to start speed camera pilot programs in places like work zones, on particularly dangerous streets and around schools. However, the introduction of speed could give way to even more inequality. As Shahum noted, putting cameras only on the most dangerous streets could mean they end up mostly in low-income areas, given that wealthier areas frequently have narrow streets and walkable sidewalks.
Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco), author of one of the bills, said the measure includes safeguards to make the speed camera program fair. It would cap fees at $125, with a sliding scale for low-income drivers, and make violations civil offenses, not criminal.
“We know something has to be done, because traditional policing on speed has not succeeded,” Chiu said. “At the same time, it’s well documented that drivers of color are much more likely to be pulled over.”