By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate
When I read the extended nationwide maximum telework order, prolonging the order that started on March 17th, I couldn’t help but think about what impact the COVID-19 preventive measures might have on traffic deaths around the country. Surely, we’ll see a drop in vehicle miles traveled, like we did in the last great recession, but will that give us a false sense of security that traffic safety has improved? The truth is, even though fewer people are driving, and we might see a drop in traffic fatalities in 2020 due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, risky driving behaviors persist. On one hand, I’ve seen reports of drivers using the emptier-than-normal freeways as their personal racetracks, and on the other, I’ve seen reports of significantly lower drunk driving arrests in the month of March.
It’s encouraging to see so many people following state orders to implement social distancing and staying at home—if there are fewer people on the roads, there is less risk for vehicle-related injuries, which keeps people out of hospitals, allowing hospital workers to focus on the influx of coronavirus patients. However, this causes me to wonder: if people can be convinced to stay home to avoid contracting a dangerous and sometimes deadly virus, could they also be convinced to designate a sober driver or drive their vehicle at posted speeds? After all, those are lifesaving behaviors, as well.
As a transportation safety advocate, I know that motor vehicle crashes are a serious threat to public health in the United States. In 2018, 36,560 people were killed in traffic crashes. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that 1,894,000 people were injured in traffic crashes in the same year. According to NHTSA, 94 percent of all serious traffic crashes are the result of human error; or, in other words, they’re caused by a driver’s choices. We should not let the stress of COVID-19 lower our guard on safe driving practices. Remaining vigilant behind the wheel is critical now more than ever with children home from school, often playing outside, riding bikes in the streets. More people are out walking; sometimes in the street to practice social distancing of other pedestrians.
The CDC has been promoting thorough handwashing procedures and the importance of covering a cough and sanitizing surfaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But did you know that the CDC also promotes motor vehicle safety behaviors like driving sober, buckling up, and not driving distracted?
We are extremely troubled by the increasing number of deaths and cases across our country related to COVID-19. Doctors, scientists, and public health professionals are all searching for a cure or a vaccine to eliminate this virus as quickly as possible. At the NTSB, we’re incredibly grateful for all those professionals—including those transporting vital supplies around the country. If Americans can choose to stay home to help slow the spread of COVID-19, imagine the impact we could have if everyone chose to make the safest driving choices for ourselves and our fellow road users. We have the power to flatten the curve of traffic deaths by making safe choices every day.