Clearer Roads Aren’t Always Safer, Study Finds

A recent study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that as roads across the country cleared during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, they did not get any safer. According to a report by Traffic Technology Today, the likelihood of fatal crashes actually increased.

Examining traffic in urban and rural parts of Texas, researchers found that “while there was a drop in the number of crashes in Texas of almost 50% during April, compared to previous years, the proportion of those crashes that were fatal rose by 50%.” What this means is that any single accident was “more likely to be fatal than it would have been” were traffic levels not interrupted by lockdowns. Researchers looked at single-vehicle and multiple-vehicle crashes in different areas of the state, grouping them into the following categories: “all single-vehicle, all multi-vehicle and urban multi-vehicle, urban single-vehicle, and rural single-vehicle and rural multi-vehicle.”

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that multiple- and single-vehicle crashes decreased by 55% and 23% each, “the proportion of crashes with at least one fatality” increased 14% in the single-vehicle category and 59% in the multi-vehicle category. They also found that the proportion of multi-vehicle crashes in urban areas that caused fatality “almost doubled.” A senior researcher at the institute attributed the trend to two chief factors, “exposure and risk.” Exposure refers to “the amount of travel,” while risk refers to the probability that travel will lead to a crash, injury, or fatality.

In April 2020, drivers were less exposed to risk because there weren’t as many people driving, and the number of crashes decreased; however, the risk of fatal crashes increased. One reason for the increase in fatal crashes was excessive speeding, according to the TTI, though he said this was not the only reason: the average speed on the roads increased on Houston freeways from 45 miles per hour to 65mph, and although this speed was legal, it appeared to be connected to the increase in fatalities.

That researcher, Jeff Wunderlich, said in a statement to Traffic Technology Today: “With fewer vehicles on the road in April, it makes sense that we had fewer multi-vehicle crashes… And there is evidence that the relationship is exponential, meaning that decreases in volume can have a greater than proportional effect on crashes. The reduction in single-vehicle crashes is more likely to be proportional to the decrease in traffic.” More information on the TTI’s research and its implications is available via Traffic Technology Today.

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