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For many drivers during the coronavirus pandemic, open roads meant the perfect opportunity to speed — roads were actually deadlier in 2020. And now, a new paper showed that open roads, speeding, and other dangerous driving behaviors go hand-in-hand. The results reportedly argue that human perception and behavior offer some explanations as to why people speed and drive dangerously.
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.
According to the authors, as people, we’ve evolved to use multiple senses to perceive speed and distance traveled. But drivers have to judge their speed, safety, and appropriateness by relying almost entirely on information that they can see. By removing traffic from the equation, it’s also removing the points of reference that drivers are accustomed to using to sense their speed and their spatial relationships to the fixed and moving objects around them.
With fewer cars on the road, the risk of high speed may seem lower, even though it generally is not. Drivers may seek to restore equilibrium by speeding up to increase the challenge or difficulty of driving. Once adapted to traveling faster, drivers may underestimate their speed in other circumstances — research cited in this paper reportedly shows that they don’t spend much time looking at the speedometer.
Moreover, bored by lower traffic volume, drivers may re-engage dangerously by “changing lanes, aggressive driving, or speeding,” or by distracting themselves with phones, gadgets, or day-dreaming, which are all behaviors that are also dangerous, but more often associated with reduced speed.
Given the association between open roads and driver misbehavior, the framing of congestion relief as a safety issue can be called into question. And given this information about driver behavior, it’s clear that roadway design is an important tool for the mitigation of speeding, too. Policies like complete streets can help build in the context drivers need to inform them to slow down.
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. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), speeding-related crashes have accounted for more than 25% of annual crash deaths since 2008. Also, 9,478 deaths, or 26%, of all motor vehicle fatalities, occurred in speed-related crashes in 2019.
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,” she said.
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. 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.