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Emptier US roads more lethal in coronavirus pandemic, report says (bbc.com)
56 points by thisistheend123 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments





Roadway deaths fall 8%, number of miles driven falls 18%, fatalities per mile increases 14%... What is noteworthy about this? Do most accidents occur near intersections or in urban areas rather than on highways? Where is the data on where these accidents happen? There are a lot less people commuting far distances due to the increase in remote work - and now these statistics are based on fewer people taking lower mileage trips. To go to the grocery store, I need to drive 3 miles and I go through 18 intersections. To go to work I'm driving 50 miles and going through 12 intersections. Intersections create scenarios where some vehicles are going 50mph faster than those stopped or turning. With some location data added, would this show that fatalities are higher in areas where there are larger concentrations of vehicles going drastically different speeds? Fender benders on the highway aren't going to cause deaths. Being T-Boned or being hit by someone running a red light....

I think you're right that it's the intersections/interactions. I commute ~50mi day across varied roads. The intersections on the "not a totally limited access highway but pretty close" seem to be where most of the stupid stuff happens. It's not any different than the normal stuff but now the speed differentials are higher so stupid has the potential to hurt more.

Most people drive around what's reasonable for the road. Some people drive insanely fast and some people drive whatever the speed limit is, reasonableness be damned. With normal traffic the latter group combined with the sheer volume of cars limit the ability of the two former groups to have large speed differentials with any of the other two groups.

Now with 'rona traffic volumes you've got the people that want to drive 100, weaving around the people who want to do 70-85 while the idiots who think it's acceptable to merge at 30mph less than traffic speed do just that. The net situation is just one unsignaled lane change away from a crash.

That said, I've seen a lot less aggressive passing because the roads are so empty that you get lots of chance to pass people so you don't need to take a crappy one.


There's also the fact that any change from the norm is going to increase fatalities. Everyone's driving skills, instincts, muscle memory are tuned to the driving conditions they expect on a particular road at a particular time. Change anything and they make more mistakes than usual.

Exactly. And TFA jumps to conclusions about speeding and reckless driving with only some quoted speculation. FWIW, your speculations make more sense to me.

Your speculation about "fatalities [being] higher in areas where there are larger concentrations of vehicles going drastically different speeds" is consistent with what data I've seen. And it's not just about intersections. In some states, ~official policy is that drivers ought to move with traffic, even if traffic is moving faster than the speed limit.

Edit: carelessness


It would be interesting to know if the number of collisions per mile has increased, or if the lethality of collisions has increased, or both.

Interesting: "Anecdotal reports indicate speeding, for example, has increased significantly since traffic diminished. Some states are also moving forward with ill-advised roadway tactics intended to address the COVID-19 pandemic but that could have far-reaching consequences. Among them are repealing requirements for teen drivers to pass road tests before acquiring licenses and relaxing hours of service rules for commercial vehicle drivers."

Summary of the report is here:

https://www.nsc.org/in-the-newsroom/motor-vehicle-fatality-r...

And the details are here:

https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/overview/prelimina...


I've witnessed this - folks driving like its a post-apocalyptical world, running lights and stop signs, speeding through empty neighborhoods at double the limit, parking randomly. Aggressive drivers are matched up against distracted drivers - on one trip, two times the light changed and the first car in line sat there for 5 or 10 seconds.

My personal observation over the years is congestion is the only thing forcing many people to obey traffic laws. Weekend drivers aren't worse per se, just untethered.

I was driving the other day on the expressway, three guys lined up across all three lanes and slowed down blocking traffic at ~30mph (typical is 70). Then after about 3 minutes of that and people honking etc, they hit it and probably hit 120mph +.

my first thought, when i read the headline was: ah, that must be because the majority of people still out on the road are irresponsible idiots

I bet part of this is a selection effect. The most prudent people are staying home as much as possible, so a higher proportion of the miles driven are by people with a predisposition to be reckless.

Yes, I would bet this accounts for the vast majority of the effect. Hard to test the theory, though. Maybe look at the driving records of the deceased, see whether the average number of past offenses was also higher.

This is exactly my experience. The roads are less populated but I find the percentage of aggressive drivers has sky rocketed. People are weaving in and out, speeding at excessive speeds (100 mph+) and generally being assholes. I don’t know why the police aren’t patrolling the highways more, because it would be very easy to hand out tickets these days.

They are.

"CHP issued 2,493 citations statewide for speeding more than 100 mph, compared to 1,335 last year."

-https://abc7news.com/chp-coronavirus-stay-home-orders-speedi...


People are now more free to drive whatever speed they find reasonable rather than the speed of other traffic. The long tails of the curve are coming out. There's probably just as many people taking advantage of the ability to comfortably drive below the mean traffic speed we just don't know about them because we don't ticket them so they don't generate data.

"...we just don't know about them..."

We also don't care about them nearly as much because it's driving fast that leads to greater injury and death, not driving more slowly.


The delta matters, not just the absolute velocity. If people are driving 100, someone driving 50 is a bigger hazard than someone driving 80.

When you step back and think about it, it is not that surprising. US Cars are built like race cars. Enforcement is a joke. I think many aggressive drivers are held back not by the fear of a ticket, but by the cars in front of them. Now is their opportunity to see what there Mustang, BMW, or whatever can really do.

It's not just people in sports cars speeding. Minivans, SUVs, beat up old 90s sedans, semi-trucks, I've seen every type of vehicle speeding. I don't see any sort of pattern on my commute of people who speed.

While sports cars speeders are usually going the fastest, everyone's just driving faster. I don't really understand why. The speed limit is now a danger to follow if your head's not on a swivel.


This is another example of how often intuitions can be dramatically incorrect. I think most people assumed that roads would be much safer during lockdowns. But there's almost always some extra factor you're not aware of that that changes things.

I try to be skeptical of any of those "obvious" conclusions that come to mind. It helps a lot with programming, where the obvious solution to a problem is often fundamentally wrong. (I'm not always successful at doing that, though.)


Personally, when I hopped back in the car after not driving for a month; it felt weird. I think that people are just de-conditioned and less cars on the road gives people false confidence in their atrophied skills.

Came here to say this. I’ve gone from driving multiple times per day to ~3x per month.

I can feel my skills have diminished and it feels like I’m sharing the road with a bunch of aggressive learners permit drivers


Anecdotally, in India, driving has become more deadlier than usual even if total number of deaths are lower. People are speeding more, since traffic police presence is lower, people are jumping red lights and driving on the wrong sides of the road a lot more. You have to be hyper alert.

In Massachusetts, "there were 28 deaths on the state's roadways in April — compared to 27 at the same time last year" despite traffic being 50% lower. The article says 1/3 of the deaths were on interstate highways but doesn't say if the proportion of deaths on highways vs. local roads was abnormal or not.

https://www.wbur.org/bostonomix/2020/05/04/massachusetts-roa...


The roads have been extra fun for those of us who enjoy them responsibly. I have seen only a few cases of unusual/dangerous things. I feel like only those with extreme experinces are reporting because of the interest effect. While cities are less busy, many rural areas seem as busy as ever, partly due to increased traffic from people looking to 'get out', is my only interesting observation..

> The roads have been extra fun for those of us who enjoy them responsibly.

Hmm, sounds like a paradox


On the plus side, we got a new Cannonball Run record: 26 hours across the continent, which works out to an average of 107 mph including stops...

https://www.whichcar.com.au/news/the-cannonball-run-record-h...


A lot of these reports make assumptions that the problem is due to speeding, but they don't contain any data about actual traffic speeds. I would like to see some evidence that the median and 85th percentile speed of traffic has gone up significantly before giving credence to claims that speeding has increased.

or some crash analysis. contrary to popular belief, speeding is not actually the leading cause of accidents.

Here is Southern California, I’ve seen a lot more crazy driving on the freeways. Since there are far less cars, I’ve seen a lot of people driving 90+ mph during the work week. It’s nuts. However the last two weeks here has seen an uptick in traffic, meaning more crowded roads and less of the speeding.

Can confirm. After a month of a total lockdown (Poland) some people got more aggressive. After some restrictions got lifted, like entering forests, cycling or jogging, situation is getting more or less normal.

I've noticed that people are driving a lot faster on the emptier roads.

Theres a post on the front page that says otherwise?

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23258858

which is it


The explanation is in the first sentence: "Early data indicate a year-on-year 14% jump in fatality rates per distance driven in March, the document by the National Safety Council (NSC) says."

The number of deaths is down, but the deaths per mile are up.


Jaywalking has increased in SF and probably other cities. This contributes to the per-mile death rate.

Are empty roads causing people to drive recklessly? Or are the isolation and disruption to people's lifestyles causing it?

People are driving like maniacs on what were previously clogged up city streets from what I've seen. Hopefully a novelty that wears off.

And of course there's this: https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/dekalb-county/90s-film-tv-a...

And this: https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/atlanta-police-arrest-dozen...


Atlanta's always had a problem with street "racing." Not finish line racing, but fast joy-riding in big groups, especially street bikes.

It's not a novelty.


True, but safe to say the frequency is way up as a result of emptier streets.

I'd say as a result of boredom.

Narrow, congested streets with not a lot of open space around it for run off are safer than wider, empty streets with lot of space around for when a driver might get off course. Why? Because a narrower street will keep the drivers focused on the road and potential dangers, whereas in the wider setting invites drivers to speed and drive recklessly in general, thinking that when they do a mistake they'll be safe anyways. This has been studied, however I don't have a link to the research papers at hand.

My question is not "are empty streets safer?" My question is "how do we know the amount of reckless behavior isn't influenced by a once-in-a-lifetime event (pandemic)?"

We know that removing traffic calming devices causes faster and more reckless driving. Poorly designed streets in high-density areas tend to rely on heavy traffic as their primary means of traffic calming. The pandemic could also separately be playing a role, but its certainly not the only cause if it is a factor.

Empty roads. I've seen empty roads in normal times promote this sort of thing. Similarly, city's that build narrower roads experience less speeding

I'm still not convinced. And it wouldn't be hard to prove either: there must be data for how much empty roads affects reckless driving during non-pandemic times. So if today's empty roads are causing reckless driving at a similar rate, then I would conclude that the pandemic isn't relevant. It would have been nice for the BBC to compare the two cases in their article.


Probably a little of both. I doubt the souped up cars racing each other are just acting out due to being stir crazy.

If that were true, one would expect reckless driving to scale indirectly with density.

"Less-density-and-easier-to-speed-and-be-reckless" vs "cheap-gas-so-let's-go-for-it" vs "stir-crazy-in-lockdown" vs ... "rage-over-losing-my-job-or-having-to-work-in-risky-situations-while-the-rich-folks-work-from-home-while-saving-even-more-of-their-income" -- I think the latter feeling would contribute a lot to risky driving.

Sunday drivers 24/7

The dimmest among us think it's fun to drive extra fast because there are less cars on the road. States should jack up fines exponentially to try and deter these sociopaths.

Atlanta recently worked with multiple jurisdiction to put a stop to street racing which saw a major uptick during the stay at home order.

Georgia along with other states have super speeder laws [1] which throw additional penalties upon the infraction. You can already get charged with reckless driving at high speeds so it all tends to pile on.

Sadly Georgia did [2] online only driver license testing during the initial lock downs but it appears they are going back to actual testing but I don't think it will be as good as before when those being tested would have someone in the car with them

Far too many drivers think they are better than they are but I believe that distracted driving is far worse; Georgia's hands free law resulted in people using window mounts to place phones in their line of sight which is a horrid outcome

auto start video warning [0]https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/44-arrests-29-cars-impounde...

[1] https://dds.georgia.gov/reinstatement-faqs-super-speeder

auto start video warning [2]https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/driving-road-tests-start-ba...


My suspicion is that it could be curtailed much more effectively by placing (and enforcing) bans on two other habits that make the roads less safe: Passing people on the right, and just hanging out in the left lane.

That said, yeah, screens while driving is a menace. Not just when you have a phone mount. Texting while driving is built into CarPlay as an in-dash infotainment feature that drivers are actively encouraged to use.


> "...bans on two other habits..."

we already have a rule to deal with that: move to the right if you're not passing, meaning if you're not going faster than the nearest cars immediately to your right (forward and rearward) or if there are no such cars, then move right one lane. but it's not enforced at all.

drag racing on city roads is clearly reckless and dangerous and should be appropriately penalized (but forgivable with contrition). however, a lot of aggressive driving is frustration at other drivers' lack of consideration (to the rule above, for instance). distracted driving is the biggest (but not only) component of lack of consideration.

active driving simultaneously solves for aggression, inconsideration, and distraction.


I'm way more scared of cars than the virus. There's no cure for automobiles, but at least there's hope of a vaccine at some point in the future.

> I'm way more scared of cars than the virus.

I'm not sure why. The Virus is currently 50x more deadly than cars (in Michigan, for example, about ~100 people die from car accidents each year, but 5,000+ people have died from COVID-19 across just half of 2020.)


Got me curious. Looks more like ~1,000/yr from car accidents: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/msp/DecadeGlanceFatals_38... (Still less than I would have guessed.)

Also interesting: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/states/michigan/michigan....

Curious to see how all-cause numbers will be affected.

(data still supports your point - thanks for perspective.)


Those numbers don't include secondary diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer (and other pollution related effects), etc. You can also argue based on the comorbidity data that automobile use has contributed to the death rate from the virus. The virus might kill people quickly, but cars kill people slowly (and quickly). People are only afraid of the unlikely cause of deaths, but tend to ignore the likely causes.

Right, but a pandemic like this may last 1 or 2 years. Driving a car goes on for a lifetime, and for most demographics highway driving is the single most dangerous activity they ever engage in.

>There's no cure for automobiles

Of course there is. Society existed before the automobile, it will exist after it as well.


Strictly speaking there is a cure (ban cars), but it's not something that's likely to ever happen because of the cultural importance of automobiles.

The other day I went to the office to pick up something and I was finally able to experience the nice banked turn in my commute at full speed. 160kmh with tires at the limit of grip, when most of the days I can barely get 60kmh there. What a pleasure.

How considerate of tired emergency workers who would have had to peel you off various surfaces if you exceeded the limit of grip. Go to a track if you want to behave like a child.

Can't they just power wash me away?

Or just act one on here.. Car accidents happen all the time and rarely does the person who caused it think they were going to cause it. If you had lost people to an idiotic driver in your life maybe you'd see things my way.



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