Traffic is down, danger is up on the nation’s roadways

speeding car approaching a city
If you need to venture out on the roads, be sure to drive defensively! According to recent reports, many streets and highways have turned into a dangerous environment of deserted streets given over to drag racing and speeding competitions. With so many businesses shut down and people under a stay-at-home advisory during the coronavirus crisis, nationwide, traffic has dropped by  more than 40%, according to transportation-data firm Inrix. Some large metro highways report even higher drops of between 50% to 70%. But if you think less volume makes for safer roads, think again! Unfortunately, people seem to be driving much more recklessly.

According to a report in Agency Checklists, new data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation shows that despite a 50% reduction in overall traffic on Massachusetts roads, fatalities doubled in number during April. But this troubling trend is not unique to Massachusetts. Standard Publishing talks about a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA):

“State highway safety officials across the country are reporting a sharp spike in speeding incidents. Multiple states have reported speed increases, with Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska and Utah noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more.”

In addition to the increase in MA fatalities, Rhode Island and Nevada state officials report that pedestrian fatalities are increasing. Even before the recent reports, pedestrian fatalities have been creeping up over time and pedestrian deaths are now at their highest level since 1988.

The Washington Post cites both the GHSA report and law enforcement and traffic experts throughout the country, and the story is the same: speeders have taken over the roadways. In addition to drag racing and high-speed competitions, the post Post reports:

What’s more, those speeding drivers are also more distracted. A study released Thursday by the data analytics company Zendrive found motorists are braking harder and using their phones more while driving. The analysis of millions of miles of driving data based on smartphone sensors found speeding is up by 27 percent on average, while hard braking climbed 25 percent. Phone usage on the nation’s roadways steadily increased in the weeks following the stay-at-home guidelines, up by 38 percent in mid-April, according to the report.

The Post says that people may think they can get away with reckless driving because law enforcement have limited resources or have reallocated resources during the pandemic. And some psychologists think it may be for excitement to counter the boredom or as an emotional release.

Hopefully, this troubling trend is a shutdown anomaly that will ease as states begin gradually reopening. But if and when you need to be out on the roads – particularly the highways – be super alert, avoid distractions, wear your seat belt, and keep your own speed down!


Do traffic tickets go up as economy goes down?

A word to the wise: keep to the speed limit. While that’s always good advice from both a safety and an economic perspective, it may be even more significant in the light of a recent study:

“A new study to be published in next month’s Journal of Law and Economics finds statistical evidence that local governments use traffic citations to make up for revenue shortfalls. So as the economy tanks, motorists may be more likely to see red and blue in the rearview.”

The study, which controlled for demographic and economic differences in the sample, included an analysis of data from 96 North Carolina counties over a 14 year period. The study authors stated, “Specifically, a one percentage point decrease in last year’s local government revenue results in roughly a 0.32 percentage point increase in the number of traffic tickets in the following year.
Other news reports seem to indicate that the volume of traffic tickets has risen in some states. For example, Connecticut police issued 78,000 speeding tickets in 2008. This 16% increase over the prior year added $327,000 in revenue to the state. And as a way to offset budget shortfalls, some other states are looking to increase fines for traffic violations. Florida basic traffic fines recently went up by $10, with some fines increasing by as much as $35 to $60.
Now many public officials would deny any link between the municipal budget and traffic tickets. Officials in Denver attribute last year’s 20% spike in parking ticket revenue not to the economy, but to increased fines, a spate of special events such as the Democratic Convention, and an increase in the number of personnel writing tickets.
It may well be true that any increase in local revenues from traffic-related tickets is coincidental. On the other hand, cash-strapped states and municipalities may see enhanced enforcement as a win-win that increases public safety while helping with a budget crunch. So next time you consider putting more pressure on the gas pedal or pulling into that illegal parking space because “you’ll only be a minute,” consider the fact that the odds might be working against you. And remember, a moving traffic violation is not just the matter of a one-time fine – in terms of your insurance rates, tickets can be a drain for several years to come since your rates are partially based on your experience.
Related reading
State Traffic Laws from FindLaw
Traffic Tickets, A to Z from FindLaw
How Traffic Tickets Work from How Stuff Works