It could be assumed that during a pandemic there would be fewer people driving and fewer accidents and road deaths. Actually, the picture is much more complicated—research suggests that the inverse has actually been true.
There were fewer cars on the road, everywhere
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced unsurprisingly that there were fewer cars traveling during the height of the pandemic—total traffic volume fell 16% on U.S. roads during the first half of 2020, according to Axios.
So accidents initially decreased…
In France, one of the largest car assurers Maif, announced on April 12 that it was to return €100 million ($117 million) to 2.8 million members who had assured roughly 3.8 million cars because the number of car accidents on the road had dropped by 80% in the first three weeks of the pandemic (when France enacted one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe). As Le Monde pointed out, this amounted to roughly €30 ($35) per insured car.
According to Autoplus, 250 people died on the roads in France in 2019 (an increase of 7.3% compared to March 2018) but in March 2020, this figure had decreased to 130.
… but not for professional drivers
However, it is worth noting that the number of road deaths for professional drivers of commercial or heavy-goods vehicles didn’t change–as reported by The Huffington Post. It’s another example of how frontline professions haven’t been protected from Covid-19 related issues as much as other workers.
But risky behavior increased…
Anecdotally, lots of people have talked about how people appear to be driving more carelessly and much faster and this appears to have translated into actual statistics.
A NHTSA study found that drivers who were seriously injured or were victims of fatal crashes had taken risks such as speeding, or not using seatbelts or had been driving while impaired. More drivers took alcohol, cannabinoids, and opioids during the second quarter 2020, than they apparently had done prior to the pandemic.
The Huffington Post reported that in France, excessive speeding (faster than 50km/h more than the authorized speed) increased by 12% when lockdown began (compared to the weeks before). Three weeks after France’s déconfinement (when it emerged from lockdown), 20 Minutes reported that there was an “alarming increase in fatalities” and a 15% increase in excessive speeding.
David Juillard, in the department of Road Safety at the Ministry of the Interior suggested that it could have been due to drivers wanting to feel liberated after lockdown but Juillard also suggested it was due to a lack of rule-following.
This particularly resulted in a spike in accidents involving cyclists (many of whom were new out onto the roads) not wearing helmets, not signalling when changing lanes and drivers not giving them enough due care.
… and so did fatalities
In the U.S., fatality rates increased 30% in the second quarter, reversing a three-year downward trend in road fatalities. The NHTSA believes that the pandemic pushed people towards riskier behavior but also that a lack of road safety messaging during the pandemic could have contributed.
Economic downturns generally lead to a decrease in traffic, people move less and there are fewer accidents. However, the impact of Covid-19 is unknown and there are theories that it might have the opposite impact on road safety. Research suggests that increased stress, more idle time, increased consumption of drugs and alcohol and “greater opportunities for speeding and stunt driving” would probably lead to more accidents rather than less.