How Has COVID-19 Affected Road Safety?

traffic in a city

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, road safety experts, including personal injury lawyers, attempted to predict how shelter-at-home measures would impact motor vehicle accident rates and driver behaviour. It was assumed, for example, that wide lockdowns would limit the use of personal automobiles, and that that would in turn reduce the number of serious accidents.

Around the time that the pandemic took hold in North America, the Global Alliance of NGOs for Road Safety compiled a list of factors that might affect road safety during and after the lockdowns. Below, we’ll look at a few key predictions and assess their accuracy.

There Will Be Fewer People on the Roads

The Global Alliance was correct in predicting that personal automobile use would decline amid the lockdowns. This effect has been noted around the world.

Unfortunately, the Alliance – and many personal injury lawyers – also guessed that fewer journeys would lead to fewer crashes. New data suggest this has not been the case. In the United States, a report from the National Safety Council (NSC) showed a 14 per cent year-over-year increase in fatality rates per distance driven in March. While overall traffic deaths – a figure that includes fatalities among drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists – were down 8 per cent, the overall number of miles driven was down 18 per cent, meaning road users are actually more likely to be killed than during the same period last year.

The numbers are equally discouraging in Ontario, where the OPP reported 71 deaths on patrolled roads as of May 4, up from 61 deaths during the same period in 2019. In both the United States and Ontario, speed appears to be a key factor.

“Disturbingly, we have open lanes of traffic and an apparent open season on reckless driving,” said NSC President Lorraine M Martin, according to the BBC. “Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic and crisis, we should take it as our civic duty to drive safely.”

“If we don’t do it for ourselves,” she added, “we should do it for our first responders, our law enforcement and our healthcare workers, who are rightly focused on coronavirus patients and should not be overwhelmed by preventable car crashes.”

Of the 71 deaths in Ontario, 17 were linked to speeding.

“We aren’t invincible,” said Lewis Smith, Canada Safety Council’s coordinator of communications, to Global News. “Speed may seem like a good idea because the roads are open, and you think you’re not putting anyone at risk, but the truth is risk can come in a hurry. Speed incenses the likelihood of something happening you don’t have time to react too.”

Even before it became apparent that lighter traffic would not lead to fewer deaths, safety experts were concerned about cars eventually returning to the roads.

“Some radio programs and news reels are showing empty streets and realizing that it’s true that there are no road crashes because of this, but what will happen when we all go out again?” asked Viviam Perrone of Argentina’s Asociación Civil Madres del Dolor in a Global Alliance article. “… we should learn to live with our foot off the accelerator when we return to the streets.”

Fewer People Will Use Public Transit

It was expected at the onset of the pandemic that mass transit ridership would plummet – this has played out as expected. It is unlikely that riders will return to public transit in the near future.

From a road safety perspective, this is a problem. Traveling via mass transit is in general much safer than travelling in a personal automobile. If fewer people choose to take mass transit in the near future, that will mean more automobiles on the road and, in all likelihood, more accidents.

If cities want to avoid a major spike in traffic accidents as their lockdowns are lifted, they must encourage commuters to travel on foot or by bicycle as much as possible. They must also develop strategies for effectively sanitizing public transit vehicles and restoring public trust.

Road Safety Strategies Will be Put on Hold

The City of Toronto is already familiar with the challenges of implementing a comprehensive road safety strategy; even before the pandemic, it struggled to make progress with its Vision Zero approach. As public resources are reallocated to deal with COVID-19, personal injury lawyers fear that road safety measures will tumble down the list of priorities. There is also concern that public messaging and awareness campaigns around road safety will be drowned out by the deserved focus on the virus.

“In general, it would seem that most of the public will be distracted, from road safety messages and that perhaps some of what we road safety advocates might usually be doing might need to wait until COVID comes under control,” said University of Washington Global Health professor Carlie Mock in the Global Alliance article.

Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer

If you or a member of your family has been injured in a traffic accident amid COVID-19, contact Will Davidson LLP today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation. Our team of personal injury lawyers is continuing to accept new clients throughout the lockdown. Don’t hesitate to be in touch with any questions or concerns.

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