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[UPDATE] Pandemic driving behavior stays reckless as summer comes to an end

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The emergence of the Delta variant put a pause on things going “back to normal” across the nation. Companies are rethinking their return to office plans, some ICUs are reaching capacity, and schools are trying to figure out in-person classes. One thing that hasn’t changed is the increase in speeding and reckless driving. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported a 10.5% increase in car crash fatalities in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period the year before, despite a 2.1% drop in the number of miles driven. Metromile reported that speeding 75% or more was up 74% in 2021. In addition, the number of highway deaths in 2020 was the greatest in more than a decade, marking it as the deadliest year on highways since 2007. 

Traffic data indicate that the higher death toll was related to higher average speeds, drivers on the roads being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, as well as a slight decline in seatbelt use. Here are some potential reasons why drivers have become more comfortable with engaging in reckless driving behaviors1:

  • Some drivers were emboldened by a lack of law enforcement
  • Some drivers felt too comfortable with their car’s safety features
  • The reemergence of the Cannonball Run, a speed challenge where drivers attempt to drive from Manhattan to Redondo Beach under 26 hours, pushed adrenaline-seeking drivers to take advantage of the reduction in road users

It’s been over a year since the start of the pandemic, and with vaccinations ramping up, cabin fever at an all-time high, and the  CDC officially announcing that masks are no longer needed  for those who have been fully vaccinated, people have been more willing to safely travel to see their friends and family again. But as more drivers get back on the road, it’s important to take note of what risky driving behaviors surged over the past year and a half. 

According to a  survey conducted by Erie Insurance, half of the respondents stated that they plan on taking at least one road trip in 2021. AAA also predicts that there will be a spike in travel over the Memorial Day weekend, as more Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and consumer confidence grows. The auto club expects  more than 37 million people to travel at least 50 miles during the holiday weekend, up 60% from last year but still 13% lower than Memorial Day 2019. 

Distracted driving

According to Erie,  65% of motorists admitted to interacting with devices  while behind the wheel, whether it was to look at the GPS or answer phone calls and texts. Similarly, Traveler’s reported in its 2021 Travelers Risk Index that there was a  7% increase in texting or emailing while behind the wheel  from before the pandemic. Other distractions include passengers in the car diverting focus from the road, looking at things outside the window, and using the GPS. Some drivers admitted to even  shopping online  while behind the wheel.

Speeding 

Increased speeding was a key factor in a recent rise in crash fatalities nationwide,  with 42,000 people dying in car crashes in 2020. With fewer cars on the road, drivers may have developed a nonchalant feeling around speeding, rather than viewing it as a risky, and often fatal, driving habit. 

  • Minnesota  issued more than 21,000 speeding tickets in the first three months of 2021, with troopers citing 241 drivers going at least 100 mph.
  • California  issued more than 2,300 citations a month to drivers going over 100 mph just in the first three months of 2021.
  • Washington, D.C.,  reported that more than 6% of 2021 speeders were going at least 20 mph over the limit, which ranges from 25 mph to 50 mph.
  • A  Colorado  State Trooper stated he used to catch a speeding driver hitting 100 mph maybe once a month, but now sees it happen a few times a week. 

Some states have been looking for ways to boost the authority of localities to regulate traffic in their communities, such as  giving cities and counties more control over speed limits. Travelers’ Second Vice President of Workers Compensation and Transportation Chris Hayes advised  “as travel restrictions are lifted around the country, it’s critical to slow down and stay focused on the road.” 

  • New York City  lowered the speed limit by 5 mph on nine crash-prone roads in response to seeing 121 fatal crashes in the last year.
  • Chicago  began issuing speed camera tickets to drivers going at least 6 mph over the limit after seeing a 45% spike in traffic fatalities in 2020. 
  • Massachusetts,  Rhode Island  and  Florida  proposed allowing communities to use speed cameras on their roads. 

Metromile  reported that as work-related commutes decrease  long-distance driving and road trips could be the biggest propeller of the gains in miles driven this year. As roads may not become as congested as they used to be pre-pandemic and the concept of “rush hour” dwindles, it’s important to be cautious on the road and maintain smart driving habits.

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Jasmine Kim
Jasmine Kim

Jasmine is a licensed insurance agent and The Zebra’s newsroom content writer. With a background in B2B content writing and journalism, she reports on breaking news, trends, mergers and acquisitions, and financial reports related to the insurance industry.