By Samantha Bloch
Since March, 42 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have adopted jurisdiction-wide stay-at-home orders.
In mid-April, stay-at-home orders covered at least 316 million people in America, roughly 96% of the total population. Michigan even banned travel between two residences within the state.
Under these restrictions, traffic across the nation began to decrease significantly. The Nebraska DOT reported that state highway traffic volumes dropped 35% for the week of April 12 through April 18 compared to the previous three-year average.
Steep declines were also reported in Oregon and Idaho. Researchers in California found traffic volumes decreased by up to 55% on some state highways after the stay-at-home order became effective. Mobile cellphone location data supports these findings and indicates the decline in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has been even more drastic in large cities. San Francisco saw a VMT decrease of 83% in March of 2020 compared to January 2019, while it declined 67% in Chicago and New York.
Reduction in miles driven is generally coupled with a reduction in crashes and fatalities. Many states have reported a decline in overall crashes since stay-at-home orders went into effect. A study conducted in California indicates that traffic collisions, including fatal crashes, were cut in half.
However, anecdotal evidence suggested that extreme speeding was on the rise. In several states, police started seeing an increase in excessive speeds primarily on highways, but also on city streets. In Colorado, one person was caught going 128 mph in a 55-mph zone.
The initial observations were later confirmed by hard evidence. Citations for speeding over 100 mph saw an 87% spike in California between March 19 and April 19. Citations in Iowa and Nebraska increased by over 60% for the same reckless behavior. The average speed on some of Oregon’s highways was up to 26 mph higher than usual.
In times when traffic was down and driving safely should have been a top priority to avoid straining emergency rooms, paradoxically, officials in some parts of the country started recording more crash fatalities.
In Missouri, there have been 225 motor vehicle fatalities this year compared to 222 during the same period in 2019. In Minnesota, traffic fatalities increased roughly 50% between March 16 and April 8 in comparison with the same period in 2019. Massachusetts’ DOT reported an increase in the total number of deaths in April of this year compared with April of 2019. Data gathered by officials showed a fatality rate on Massachusetts roads that doubled. In addition, while the total number of fatalities is decreasing in other states, it is not always decreasing on par with the drop in VMT.
More research will be necessary to understand why some states are seeing an overall spike in fatalities or increased fatality rates. But many experts believe the rise of excessive speeding and other aggressive and careless driving behaviors is to blame.
As indicated by a recent speeding data analysis, high levels of traffic seem to act as a constraint on speeding. With the big drop in traffic levels, the current pandemic appears to have created an irresistible temptation for speed lovers who deduced enforcement officials would be either busy dealing with COVID-19 related issues or hesitant to engage in direct contact. Police in New York City wrote 36% fewer tickets in March in contrast to January of 2020, while the city’s speed cameras issued 15% more citations.
Could these circumstances lead some states to reconsider speed cameras as an effective countermeasure that reduces speeds by increasing a potential offender’s real or perceived risk of getting caught? Speed cameras are easy to install and use and relatively cost-effective, but above all, they avoid all human contact. Studies generally show the positive impact of automated enforcement programs, such as speed and red-light cameras, on traffic safety, but serious skepticism remains regarding how such programs are administered and designed.
The recent trend has been toward fewer jurisdictions using automated enforcement programs. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), as of April, 153 communities in 16 states and the District of Columbia have speed camera programs in place.
Eight states—Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin--explicitly prohibit speed cameras.
COVID-19 has dramatically shifted law enforcement priorities and resources. Whether states and communities turn to contactless technologies such as automated enforcement in the future will be an interesting trend to follow as the threat of future pandemics looms.
Samantha Bloch is a policy associate in NCSL’s Transportation Program.