Why traffic accidents are surging during the pandemic

Dr. Sal Iaquinta 

COVID has had many unexpected effects on us. Perhaps the most unpredictable change is the increase in traffic accidents.

In 2020, insurance companies reported that about 13% fewer miles were driven than in 2019, yet traffic deaths were up 7%. Then, the first half of 2021 showed an increase of nearly 20% compared to the same time period the year earlier. It seems paradoxical.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a few papers last year describing its findings on crashes. It found that people in accidents were more likely to have alcohol or other drugs in their system compared to previous years.

After March 2020, the presence of marijuana in seriously or fatally injured drivers increased 50% and the incidence of opioids almost doubled. Studies looking at the latter half of 2020 found more than half of seriously injured drivers had at least one drug present in their system. Since the start of the pandemic, the sales of alcohol and marijuana have been continuing to climb.

The misuse of drugs and alcohol are not the only contributors to the increase of traffic fatalities. The number of people issued tickets for speeding more than 20 mph above the posted speed limit also increased. As such, speeding-related fatalities increased about 11%.

Some people have taken advantage of the emptier roads. During 2020, a man drove from Los Angeles to New York, racing the famous “Cannonball Run” at a record average pace of 108 mph.

Speeding is a risky behavior made more dangerous by not wearing a seatbelt. The NHTSA database also records how many accidents involved occupants being ejected from the vehicle (not an absolutely perfect measure of seatbelt use, but close enough). Not surprisingly, men between the ages of 18 to 49 accounted for the majority of the ejections.

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Researchers found that cellphones were manipulated within the five seconds before an accident in one out of seven crashes. In a separate study, drivers self-reported an increase of distracted driving since COVID started. COVID might not be to blame, everyone might just always have their phones in their hands at all times more than ever before.

Psychologists have tried to explain the behavior changes seen during COVID. Frank Farley, research psychologist, attributed it to “arousal breakout,” which is an opportunity to feel something exciting to escape the feeling of locked down. Others say destructive behavior is a byproduct of the stress, anxiety and depression that has skyrocketed since COVID began.

In addition to the stress around COVID, this time of year historically has a higher incidence of traffic fatalities. When kids are out of school, they get in more accidents (just another reason to go to grad school). Seventy percent of accidents of young people have alcohol and/or speeding involved.

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Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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