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Researchers analyze COVID-19’s impact on motorist behavior after rise in traffic fatalities

Researchers analyze COVID-19’s impact on motorist behavior after rise in traffic fatalities

BLACKSBURG—The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on roadway safety nationwide.

Data scientists presented theoretical reasons for this at September’s DRIVE SMART Virginia Distracted Driving Summit, held in Blacksburg and partially sponsored by Virginia Farm Bureau.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported the largest six-month increase ever recorded, when over 20,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, up a staggering 18.4% over 2020.

Though lockdowns reduced traffic density, social capital deteriorated, and a dominant demographic of bored motorists used open roads for riskier driving.

Bryan E. Porter, associate dean and professor of psychology at the Old Dominion University Graduate School, shared a big-picture overview on how COVID-19 impacted U.S. motorists.

He said economic recessions historically have resulted in lower traffic fatalities, until COVID-19.

“When the U.S. loses money, they actually save lives on the road,” he said. “It’s a correlation we’ve seen time and time again. Now look at 2020 when COVID occurred. This is the first time during a recession where roadway deaths did not drop but increased.”

In Virginia, 973 people died in traffic-related accidents in 2021, a 14.5% increase over 2020.

Though U.S. fatality rates stabilized in 2022, Porter said, “We’re nowhere near recovery, but may be hitting the threshold.”

In global comparisons, he noted that Sweden’s roads were safer through the pandemic.

“They were a natural experiment,” Porter said. “But what did they do differently? They did not shut down and remained fully open. We can talk about their COVID rates—that’s fair—but they had improvements in traffic deaths.”

Data scientist Nicholas Ward discussed psychological theories and influences that may explain COVID-19’s behavioral impacts, like seatbelt negligence and speeding.

AAA data shows the traditional driving population changed during the pandemic, as “older, safer people” stayed home, and younger, typically male drivers took to roads for essential work.

Changes in social capital—how strongly we feel connected to each other and the community—also contributed to fatalities.

“Data shows communities with stronger social capital have a better traffic safety record because you feel connected to people sharing the road with you,” he said. “There is evidence to show that during COVID, attachment to social groups changed to focusing on immediate family.”

Lockdown boredom was another psychological factor, Ward said.

“People try to regain excitement in their life when they are bored,” he explained, adding that those directly impacted by the illness exhibited intensified boredom. “To offset that, they saw more benefits to taking risks, and did it when they could on the road!”

Media: Contact Porter, or Rich Jacobs, DSV public relations and outreach manager, at 804-929-6117.