COVID-19 reduced traffic, but increased crash severity, shows study

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, something unexpected happened on the roads.

As people stayed at home and traffic decreased, there were fewer accidents overall.

However, researchers have discovered that the severity of crashes actually increased.

A recent study analyzed data from California highways and found that when traffic congestion reduced, average speeds went up, leading to a 25% increase in severe accidents.

Let’s explore this phenomenon known as the “speed effect” and understand its impact on road safety.

During the initial months of the pandemic, with fewer cars on the road, congestion in urban areas eased significantly.

As a result, drivers could travel at much higher speeds, limited only by the speed limit and their own comfort. Unfortunately, this led to an increase in severe crashes.

The study showed that average highway speeds rose by 2 to 3 mph across California counties, with some highly congested areas experiencing an increase of up to 10 to 15 mph. Consequently, the proportion of severe crashes rose by about 25% during the period studied.

Why did crash severity increase?

The “speed effect” occurred primarily in areas that were congested before COVID-19. When there is less traffic, drivers tend to accelerate and drive faster. Therefore, if an accident occurs under these conditions, it is more likely to be severe.

While fewer people were driving during the early stages of the pandemic, resulting in fewer fatalities overall, the increase in speed-related accidents neutralized this reduction in fatalities as more people returned to the roads while speeds remained high.

The researchers emphasized that this study goes beyond the COVID-19 context and has policy implications for road safety. Policies that reduce congestion and increase highway speeds are likely to lead to similar increases in crash severity.

Therefore, it is crucial to consider the potential impact of such policies on traffic patterns and safety outcomes in specific areas.

While the study did not delve into the psychological and behavioral aspects of drivers during the pandemic, it did uncover certain demographic patterns.

Younger and male drivers were more likely to be involved in accidents during this period, as these factors are often linked to a higher likelihood of accidents according to insurance data. Additionally, the increase in crash severity affected drivers across different age groups, suggesting that the impact was not limited to riskier drivers.

The results of this study highlight the importance of considering factors like speed and congestion in road safety policies. Reducing the number of cars on the road without addressing speed-related risks may lead to an increase in severe accidents.

Conversely, policies that aim to decrease driving while maintaining safe speeds could help reduce fatalities. However, it is essential to tailor these policies to specific traffic conditions in different areas to achieve the desired safety outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided researchers with a unique opportunity to study how government policies, congestion, and speed indirectly affect road safety.

The study revealed the “speed effect” phenomenon, wherein reduced congestion led to higher average speeds and a subsequent increase in crash severity.

This emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between reducing traffic and ensuring safe driving speeds to protect lives on the roads.

By understanding these dynamics, policymakers can make informed decisions to enhance road safety in the future.

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