Data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this month show an increase in unsafe driving by young men. The data specifically shows an uptick in reckless behavior by motorists in rural areas of the country, as well as increased use of drugs and alcohol, after the Covid-19 pandemic began. These trends are part of a broader spike in motorist fatalities, even as there were fewer cars on the road amidst lockdowns and other travel restrictions.
According to a recent analysis by Car and Driver, the NHTSA began studying the role of drugs and alcohol in motorist fatalities in the fall of 2019, testing blood drawn in morgues or emergency rooms for alcohol and various narcotics. Over the course of the pandemic, the NHTSA determined that “the number of people who died who tested positive for alcohol went from 21.3 percent before March 16 to 26.9” by mid-July. Cannabinoids rose 21.4% to 31.2%, and opioids 7.6% to 12.9%. The data reveals that 64.7 percent of fatally injured motorists tested positive “for at least one active drug compared to 50. percent before the public health emergency began.” Men were found to be more likely to test positive than women, according to Car and Driver, and there were higher rates of positivity during the week than on weekends.
In a statement to Car and Driver, the NHTSA’s associate administrator for research and program development said that beginning in the spring, “We saw troubling signs… Speeding across the country seemed to be going up at the time, as quoted by several newspapers. More drivers appeared to be failing to put on seatbelts. And we had troubling early indications that drug and alcohol use was up.”
The associate administrator, Nanda Srinivasan, also told Car and Driver that the NHTSA received anecdotal reports of reduced seatbelt usage as well as a spike in speeding, which comports with the NHTSA’s data. As traffic levels fell during the pandemic, apparently, so did reckless driving: the NHTSA inferred from increased “ejection rates,” which describe passengers being ejected from their cars during a crash, that fewer motorists were wearing seatbelts, especially among men 18-34 living in rural regions. The report suggests that the increase in reckless driving was most prevalent in younger people in part because older Americans, who were at greater risk for severe cases of Covid-19, are more risk-averse and stayed off the roads more than younger people.
The NHTSA report noted that the uptick in reckless driving had other structural causes. A nationwide decrease in traffic stops gave motorists more leeway to speed: the report suggests that “It is possible that drivers’ perception that they may be caught breaking a law was reduced,” and Srinivasan told Car and Driver that “Georgia state police cited 140 drivers for speeding at over 100mph in one two-week period during the pandemic.” As the NHTSA began to observe these trends, it “launched a media strategy focused on speeding and safety, including publishing an op-ed and running a $4 million national radio campaign.” Later this month it will launch a series of panels to identify solutions to the reckless conduct its report described.