It was a tally that shocked the experts: 38,680 deaths on U.S. roadways last year, the most since 2007, even though pandemic precautions had dramatically reduced driving, reported the Los Angeles Times.
“This was completely unprecedented,” said Ken Kolosh, a researcher at the nonprofit National Safety Council. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
One possibility was that stressed-out Americans were releasing their anxieties on the wide-open roads. He guessed that fatal accidents would decline in 2021 when traffic returned.
He was wrong. The latest evidence suggests that after decades of safety gains, the pandemic has made U.S. drivers more reckless — more likely to speed, drink or use drugs and leave their seat belts unbuckled.
“I fear we’ve adopted some really unsafe driving habits, and they’re going to persist,” Kolosh said. “Our roads are less safe than they were pre-pandemic.”
Experts say that this behavior on the road is likely a reflection of widespread feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression.
“We might decide: What does a seat belt or another beer matter, anyway, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?” said Shannon Frattaroli, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
COVID-19 marks “a sea change in psychology,” said Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who views reckless driving as a form of rebellion — or what he calls “arousal breakout.”
“You’ve been cooped up, locked down, and have restrictions you chafe at,” he said. “So if you can have an arousal breakout, you want to take it.”
Before the pandemic, safety on U.S. roadways had been improving for decades, thanks to enforcement of seat belt laws and the advent of airbags, improved braking and stability control, and other safety features.
Even as the number of people on the roads increased and many states raised their speed limits, annual fatalities fell from around 55,000 in 1970 to 36,096 in 2019.
Then came the 7.2% rise in 2020, followed by an 18% jump in the first six months of this year, based on preliminary figures from the federal government.
What made last year’s increase so astonishing was that the total miles driven — an estimate calculated by sampling traffic on various roadways — fell by over 13% as cities locked down and more people worked from home.
For every 100 million miles driven last year, 1.37 people died, a 23% rise from 2019. Mileage estimates are not yet available for 2021.
Scattered across the country at a time when the nation’s attention is on COVID-19 deaths, traffic fatalities have attracted little public notice.
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