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COVID-19′s fatal side effect of reckless driving requires intervention | COMMENTARY

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that reckless driving is up during the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused an increased in the nation's traffic fatality rate - the number of deaths compared to the amount of traffic on the roads.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that reckless driving is up during the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused an increased in the nation's traffic fatality rate - the number of deaths compared to the amount of traffic on the roads. (funnyangel // Shutterstock)

On the surface, the latest statistics from the Baltimore County Police Department would seem to be good for drivers — at least those who hate paying for speeding tickets. As of Oct. 5, their officers have written 4,936 speeding citations for the year. That may seem like a lot (it’s one speeding ticket for roughly every hour and 20 minutes), but it’s a one-third drop from 2019 when county police officers wrote 7,390 by the same date. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that the county’s finest were ordered not to make routine traffic stops for a period of time. Worried that ticketing at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic put both officers and drivers at unnecessary risk of spreading the virus, police suspended writing traffic tickets last spring for weeks or longer depending on the precinct.

Baltimore County was hardly alone. By April, Maryland District Court records show that moving violations of all types had practically dried up statewide with just 92 tickets coming before the judiciary that month compared to 5,555 during April of 2019. Between the reduction in traffic caused by the stay-at-home policies that shuttered businesses and schools and the rollback in traffic enforcement, this is hardly surprising. But what’s more concerning is the possible consequence of this reduction in policing. Recently, federal regulators presented the unfortunate news that the roads may have been less traveled this year but that didn’t prevent them from becoming more dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in the second quarter of 2020, America’s thoroughfares suffered a spike in fatal crash rates.

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This doesn’t mean the total number of fatalities increased; they did not. The sharp reduction in traffic volumes prevented that. No, what seems to have happened is something less obvious. Emptier roads and lax enforcement gave some motorists the green light to put pedal to the metal and drive aggressively. What NHTSA found is an increase in the number of people killed compared to the number of overall miles traveled. Specifically, the ratio went from 1.06 deaths per 100 million vehicles miles traveled to 1.25 in 2020, an increase of nearly 18%. Worse, it climbed to 1.42 in the second quarter, which is nearly twice as big a jump.

What makes this development all the more stunning is that U.S. crash fatalities had been in decline. Last year was the third in a row of fewer such deaths, attributable to longer-term trendd ranging from safer cars and better designed roads to traffic congestion (as speeding is generally thwarted by bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic). But suddenly giving motorists open roads while dialing back police enforcement late last March appears to have been a fatal combination. Perhaps even the apocalyptic mood of the pandemic played a role, causing drivers to be more likely to consume alcohol and drugs, not use seat belts or otherwise be put in a risk-taking frame of mind.

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The good news is that the problem can be addressed. First by better educating motorists about the risks of reckless driving but, more importantly, by dialing up enforcement. As we noted in August, state-maintained speed enforcement cameras in highway work zones never received an order to stand down. As a result, they experienced a remarkable increase in violations so far this year with one operating on I-695 in Catonsville having recorded more twice the number of speeders (people going 12 or more miles per hour above the limit) than the year before.

Police may not enjoy pulling over speeders and other routine violators, but it’s an essential mission to change driver behavior. There are an average of about 36,000 deaths each year as a result of motor vehicle crashes. In Maryland, the number is usually around 500. That may pale compared to COVID-19, which has taken more than 213,000 U.S. lives so far this year, but there’s no vaccine on the horizon to prevent drivers from making bad choices. The best we have is what psychologists call behavior modification — reward those who drive safely while punishing those who do not.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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