By: Amy Watkins, MPH
We have no precedent to tell us with certainty how current restrictions, economic changes, and fears of infection associated with COVID-19 might affect traffic patterns, crashes and fatalities. Instead, we can look to how changes in the economy have affected driving behaviors and how travel changed during similar, but smaller, epidemics in recent history.
Insights from Past Recessions
Historical data show that road safety is linked to economic fluctuations. Numerous published studies and data as far back as 1949 show that motor vehicle crashes and fatalities decline during and immediately after economic recessions. The longer the recession, the greater the decline in traffic fatalities. Of the economic impacts of a recession, unemployment rates have the strongest relationship to the fatal crash rate. For each percentage point increase in unemployment, there is between a 2.5% and 2.9% decrease in motor vehicle fatalities.
During the Great Recession, which occurred from December 2007 to June 2009, unemployment rates increased from 4.6% in 2007 to a high of 9.6% in 2010. During this timeframe, we saw a significant decline in motor vehicle crashes and fatalities around the country. In 2008, traffic fatalities decreased to the lowest level since 1961, with an almost 10% decrease from the year before. In April 2020, the COVID-19 crisis drove the unemployment rate to 14.7%, which was the highest since recording began in 1948.
Behavior Changes Lead to Reduced Crashes
The decline in crashes and fatalities during recessions is not due solely to a reduction in the number of miles that vehicles travel, as one might expect. Rather, it is a change in driving behaviors that result in a reduced number of crashes per miles traveled. During recessions, a number of factors combine which lower the risk per mile. This includes:
- fewer young drivers and large commercial vehicles on the road;
- reduced risky behaviors such as speeding, aggressive driving and drunk driving;
- reduced leisure and rural driving; and
- reduced congestion.
It is possible that we could observe some of these same phenomena during COVID-19 because of the significant rise in unemployment rates. Let’s take a closer look at these categories.
Fewer Young Drivers and Commercial Vehicles
The decrease in road fatalities during economic downturns is usually most significant among younger people, in part because they are more vulnerable to unemployment. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 reached 18.6%, which was nearly double that of the general population. Younger drivers tend to have higher crash rates than other age groups, so fewer of these drivers on the road leads to a decrease in general risk per vehicle miles traveled. The drop in deaths of persons under age 26 contributed almost 48% to the decline in total traffic fatalities from 2007 to 2011. During the current COVID-19 crisis, it is possible there will be a reduction of young drivers on the road, if they are disproportionately affected by the high unemployment rate.
In addition, economic downturns often result in a reduction of freight shipments. As a result, crashes involving heavy trucks decline more than crashes involving other vehicles during a recession. During the COVID-19 crisis, we may or may not see a reduction in the travel of large commercial vehicles, depending on how government restrictions affect various industries.
Reduced Risky Behaviors
Some studies have found that aggressive, erratic, and careless driving is less common during recessions. Safer driving behavior during recessions may result from fewer younger drivers being on the roads, and possibly because riskier drivers drive more safely in part to reduce the chance of a financially devastating crash or costly ticket. Though speeding typically drops during recessions, early reports during COVID-19 unfortunately show a rise in speeding, as people take liberties on less congested roads and reduced police patrols.
Recessions are also associated with reduced drunk driving. During a recession, people may choose to drink less in an effort to reduce expenditures, or they may elect to drink at home instead of at a restaurant or bar because it is less expensive. During COVID-19, a reduction in drunk driving might be expected due to bars and restaurants being closed by government mandate. Even if there is an increase in alcohol sales in the state, it is possible that there would not be a corresponding increase in drunk driving fatalities, since more drinking is occurring at home.
Reduced Leisure and Rural Driving
Another behavior change observed during recessions is a reduction in leisure driving. In times of economic strain, people may perform less non-discretionary or recreational travel in an effort to save money. Leisure driving is considered riskier driving because it often occurs in the evening and on rural roads, which have higher rates of fatal crashes due to speeding and increased involvement of alcohol. The reduction in leisure driving is often connected to the high gas prices seen during tough economic times. However, gas prices during COVID-19 have not risen, and in fact have dropped, so high gas prices will not be an influence on current driving behaviors. What may in fact lead to reduced leisure driving is that most destinations are closed due to efforts to curb the spread of the virus. With fewer destinations to travel to, people may elect not to drive as much.
With many people working from home during COVID-19, there will be less congestion during normal commute hours, thus reducing the risk of conflicts between drivers of passenger cars and large vehicles. Reduced congestion due to work at home measures is also likely to result in fewer multi-vehicle crashes. During the Great Recession, the largest reduction in crashes occurred during rush hours, consistent with reduced commuter traffic.
Since the decline in motor vehicle fatalities during recessions is caused by a reduction of risk per vehicle miles traveled, it is important to look at the risk for populations that continue to drive. During COVID-19, essential workers include healthcare professionals who work long hours to fight the pandemic. A study found the crash risk during a commute after an extended shift more than doubled that of a non-extended shift, and near-miss incidents were more than five times as likely. If healthcare workers who work long shifts are driving more than normal due to COVID-19, the increased risk could result in increased traffic crashes.
Insights from Past Infectious Disease Epidemics
COVID-19 has affected daily life to a degree not seen before in modern times. However, we can look at other smaller but more current infectious disease epidemics to discern the effect on travel patterns.
From late 2002 to mid-2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread through China and 25 other countries. Though the death toll did not turn out to be great, fear of infection was high and people were afraid to travel. In South Korea during the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS) outbreak of 2015, people curbed travel and public transit use.
In both the SARS and MERS epidemics, panic and fear caused by the virus contributed to significant changes in travel patterns and frequency, beyond the effect of compulsory government restrictions. Both leisure and non-obligatory travel slowed due to the fear of infection.
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Lessons Learned During COVID-19
Early examinations of changes in traffic patterns and crash statistics due to COVID-19 in other parts of the United States have already noted significant impacts. A current study by the Road Ecology Center at the University of California Davis reports that collisions and fatal crashes dropped by half since the governor’s shelter-in-place order took effect on March 19. The authors compared daily rates of collisions to both the period before the order and to a similar period in 2019. They estimate that crashes dropped from about 1,000 to about 500 per day, and injury/fatal crashes dropped from about 400 to about 200 per day since the order went into place. The authors estimate this savings to be approximately $40 million per day, or $1 billion since the start of the order due to reduced medical costs.
It remains to be seen how the current COVID-19 crisis will affect travel patterns, crashes and fatalities. Looking at the past can help us understand what might be possible. Currently, Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center has teamed up with the Connecticut Department of Transportation and UConn’s Transportation Safety Research Center to study incoming crash data to determine the full impact of COVID-19 on reducing crashes in our state. We expect to publish the results of the study this summer.
Amy Watkins, MPH, is a program specialist with Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center and oversees the Watch for Me CT program, which is funded by the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
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