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On Nov. 15, people gathered in South Los Angeles to raise traffic deaths awareness on Worldwide Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. As Damian Kevitt, executive director of Streets Are For Everyone, reportedly said, the event was organized in an effort to advocate for traffic death prevention on the highways of Southern California during a pandemic that, ironically, reduced the number of vehicles on the roads but increased the rate of serious and fatal collisions.
“There is no reason why people need to lose their lives because they are traveling on the street or bicycling home. Unfortunately, it happens way too much.” Kevitt said.
Data gathered between Feb. 3 and April 27 during the early days of the coronavirus shutdown by UC Berkeley professor Offer Grembek, co-director of the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center (SafeTREC), found a 19% drop in vehicles miles traveled (VMT) in California. The study also found a 29% drop in the rate of minor injury vehicle crashes per 100 million VMT from March 23 through June 8.
Despite this seemingly good news, Grembek saw something startling. The rate of fatal and severe traffic crashes in the state went up by 15%. In a recent webinar examining transportation safety during the pandemic, Grembek said: “We have evidence that not all crashes are the same: Reducing minor injury crashes does not mean a reduction in fatal and severe crashes will follow.”
Statistics gathered by the California Highway Patrol and other federal agencies used in recent studies don’t exactly pinpoint why the death toll rose, despite fewer cars being out on the roads due to many people working from home, students distance learning, and overall social-distancing. Grembek, however, thinks that minor injuries were from congestion-related fender benders as traffic volumes crept up, while severe injury crashes took place on free-flowing roads involving vehicles traveling at higher speeds.
In South Los Angeles, the number of traffic-caused injuries and fatalities have increased by 29% this year compared to last year, Kevitt said. Meanwhile, the number of collisions is down 11%, he said.
Wesley Reutimann, the special programs director for the nonprofit working on safe streets for biking and walking in the San Gabriel Valley ActiveSGV, shared his take on this uptick: “Angelenos are used to heavy traffic, so when there isn’t a lot of traffic, they have a hard time containing themselves, that is, keeping their foot off the gas pedal,” explained.
But the severity of vehicle collisions aren’t the only types of accidents that are going up — those involving vehicles hitting bicyclists and pedestrians are too. According to data collected by the fitness app Strava, the number of bicyclists riding in L.A. jumped 93% over the previous year.
This is a startling figure considering Los Angeles, and California as a whole, is already infamous for traffic accidents. In the six counties of Southern California, more than four people die every day in traffic collisions, SCAG reported. On average, 136,000 are injured in traffic collisions each year, including 1,500 deaths and 5,200 seriously injured. People who walk and bike are at greater risk of fatalities. Pedestrians and bike riders make up 27% of those deaths, despite comprising only 12% of the trips.
“It is not just about bringing awareness. What we are trying to accomplish is saving lives,” Kevitt concluded.