Before COVID-19, conventional wisdom held that fewer miles driven corresponded with fewer traffic fatalities and crashes.
That pattern unequivocally changed during the pandemic.
An August report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that fatalities increased during the pandemic, a trend that has continued in 2021. The NHTSA reports a 10.5% increase in fatalities despite a 2.1% decrease in vehicle miles traveled in the first quarter of 2021. Moreover, there were 1.26 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the first quarter this year, compared with a rate of 1.12 deaths in the same period in 2020.
As U.S. roads emptied out during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic, those who remained on the road began speeding more frequently, resulting in more fatalities even amid a decrease in driving. —AAA
As communities seek to establish or expand their automated enforcement programs in response, a group of traffic safety organizations, including AAA, released a new checklist they can use as a road map. “As U.S. roads emptied out during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic, those who remained on the road began speeding more frequently, resulting in more fatalities even amid a decrease in driving,” AAA stated.
Automated Technology Not New
Law enforcement agencies have used automated enforcement technology such as red-light and speed cameras for dozens of years to enforce traffic laws, in addition to traditional traffic stops. Red-light and speed cameras will also likely be one of several options considered by policymakers to address both the dangers of COVID-19 transmission and the social controversies surrounding traffic stops. According to a recent article in Police Chief magazine, the law enforcement profession is generally built on personal contact, but “when personal contact is how the virus is spread, the manner in which business is conducted changes out of necessity.” Notably, the International Association of Chiefs of Police is recommending law enforcement agencies leverage technology and “consider that automated enforcement may be necessary to help prevent the number and seriousness of traffic collisions.”
The Minnesota State Patrol launched a campaign in January to curb the speeding trend, according to an August 2021 article in AAA’s MOVE magazine. State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer said law enforcement has “encountered twice the number of people speeding in excess of 100 mph as before the pandemic.” In another article in MOVE, Spencer Moore, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services, said, “Law enforcement personnel were heavily involved in social unrest issues. That contributed to a decrease in citations, which in our state were down 35% in 2020 compared to 2019.”
Currently, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that nearly 350 U.S. communities in 22 states and the District of Columbia use red-light cameras, and more than 150 communities in 16 states and the District of Columbia use cameras to enforce speed laws. The number of communities operating red-light cameras has gone up slightly compared with January 2020, while the number of communities operating speed cameras is mostly consistent. For drivers, this means rather than a face-to-face encounter with an officer issuing a ticket, the traffic summons is mailed to a vehicle’s registered owner after a picture is taken and the offense is confirmed by law enforcement or authorized personnel.
This approach allows law enforcement agencies to maintain an enforcement element on the roads while ensuring that motorists who violate certain traffic laws are summonsed accordingly. It also enables many local governments to enforce red-light and speeding laws without diverting law enforcement resources from other areas.
Recent State Actions
At least four states—Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon and Vermont—enacted notable automated enforcement legislation during the 2021 legislative session.
Hawaii (HB 766, enacted) appropriated $2.8 million over the next three years for red-light cameras. The funds will be used to establish a statewide red-light imaging detector system pilot program. This legislation follows a 2020 law (HB 1676) that authorized a red-light camera demonstration program for at least two years in Honolulu beginning Jan. 1, 2021. The 2020 law addressed using third-party contractors, set maximum fines for first and repeat violations, and prohibited violations from being used for insurance purposes or a driver’s official record. Fine revenues will be deposited into a special fund used to operate and maintain red-light cameras.
Maryland’s General Assembly approved two new laws. One (HB 967) authorized two speed-monitoring systems to be placed on Interstate Highway 83 in Baltimore. Drivers will receive warning notices for recorded violations during the first 90 days such a system is in operation. The second law (SB 888) authorized speed cameras in Anne Arundel County on Maryland Route 175, and required the posting of a real-time display of drivers’ traveling speeds and signage indicating that a speed-monitoring system is in use.
Oregon (HB 2530) permanently extended the city of Portland’s fixed photo radar program on high crash corridors. Portland currently operates fixed photo radar at four locations.
Vermont (HB 433) ordered a feasibility study on implementing speed cameras in work zones. The study will be carried out by the state Agency of Transportation in consultation with the state Department of Public Safety and the Associated General Contractors of Vermont.
Jonathon Bates is a policy associate in NCSL’s Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.