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Study analyzes the severity of vehicle crashes in last year’s lockdown

Photos of Los Angeles freeways taken in the early days of the pandemic were jarring. Those long stretches of concrete normally jammed to capacity were in those lockdown days of 2020 nearly empty. A smattering of scattered vehicles could be seen in shots taken from above.

Similar images of nearly vacant highways, streets and roads could be found across the nation.

More speed and recklessness

According to a recent study, the few drivers who ventured out in Franklin County, Ohio, in February, March and April of last year were more likely to speed and drive recklessly. As a result, though the number of motor vehicle accidents declined, the proportion of those crashes that were deadly more than doubled, said researchers at Ohio State University.

“More of the crashes that did occur were severe, not just because of less congestion, but also because of drivers who were speeding, and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” said the lead author of the study.

Speed, not safety

Pandemic driving also changed the type of crashes: the percentage of single-vehicle wrecks rose, while rear-end collisions dropped.

The study – titled “Lower Volumes, Higher Speeds: Changes to Crash Type, Timing, and Severity on Urban Roads from COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Policies” was published in the journal Transportation Research Record.

A study co-author said the study is “more evidence that our streets are designed for speed, not safety.”

He added that auto accidents that take place in more normal times are limited in severity by high traffic volumes, but that “once traffic goes away, people speed and crashes have more serious consequences.”

Types of data analyzed

The researchers analyzed crash and traffic volume data, as well as information from INRIX, a transportation data company, that shows real-time speeds on segments of main roads and highways in Franklin County.

Ohio’s stay-at-home orders were issued on March 15 and ended on May 8.

Types of crashes studied, too

Traffic levels dropped by more than 60 percent while the governor’s stay-at-home edict was in effect. The order altered vehicle crashes in several ways, including type, time of day and severity. Researchers compared lockdown wrecks to the period just before the order was given, as well as to the same period in 2019.

Crashes also dropped by two-thirds during the early days of the pandemic, going from 24.4 per day during the lockdown, from the daily 75.8 that took place in the same 55-day period the year before.

Rear-end collisions were only 19 percent of all crashes during the lockdown. In 2019, rear-end crashes accounted for 35.5 percent.

The study does not address fluctuations in the number of personal injury lawsuits filed by vehicle crash injury victims.