By Samantha Bloch
A couple of months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., traffic safety experts expressed concern over what they were seeing on the country’s streets and highways. While many Americans were homebound by stay-at-home orders, road fatalities were not decreasing at the expected rate.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) early estimates of traffic fatalities for the first six months of 2020 indicate that the number of traffic deaths decreased 2% as compared to the same period in 2019. However, the fatality rate—number of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled—increased from 1.06 in the first half of 2019 to 1.25 in 2020.
Excessive speeds and increased average speed but also lower seat belt use started appearing as possible culprits. Additionally, measures of cellphone motion—an indicator of smartphone distraction—increased roughly 15% between March and April 2020. These novel approaches to distracted driving data collection suggest that while mobile device use by drivers was already a concerning issue prior to COVID-19, “phone distraction per mile driven became even more frequent during the lockdown.”
Anecdotal evidence and preliminary data hinted that impaired driving was also on the rise, and two newly released NHTSA reports appear to confirm this worrying trend.
NHTSA notes, “The COVID-19 public health emergency has revealed unique patterns concerning traffic safety when compared to previous times of economic uncertainty.” While fatality rates have been historically lower during recessions and there is a reduction of risky behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving, this was not the case the first months after the pandemic began.
The agency collected data in trauma centers to examine the prevalence of alcohol and drugs in the blood of seriously or fatally injured drivers and other crash victims before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. While drug prevalence among seriously and fatally injured drivers was high before, the results indicate that it was higher from March to July 2020—the period during the pandemic for which data was available for the study.
Data shows an increase in drivers with blood alcohol contents (BACs) of .15 or more. Drug and polysubstance—a mix of drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol—prevalence increased in particular. Roughly 65% of drivers tested positive for at least one drug (including alcohol) and 25.3% for two or more compared to 50.8% and 17.6%, respectively, before COVID-19. The study also found that 32.7% of drivers tested positive for marijuana in comparison with 28.3% who tested positive for alcohol. Opioid prevalence almost doubled, increasing from 13.9% to 7.5%.
These findings must be taken with a grain of salt.
NHTSA acknowledges that more research needs to be done regarding drug use among drivers—in part because prevalence rates cannot be used to determine impairment at the time of the crash. However, the significant increase in high BAC, opioid and marijuana prevalence rates could be indicative of a growing problem.
Please plan to join NCSL’s upcoming December Traffic Safety Online Series on Dec. 2 and Dec. 9 for a thorough examination of various traffic safety challenges and trends, including polysubstance-impaired driving. The meetings will include opportunities for audience participation.
Samantha Bloch is a policy associate in NCSL’s Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.