Crash deaths are on the rise despite a decrease in driving during the pandemic
BOISE – According to new AAA research, many Americans have expressed a greater willingness to drive safely. But for some, there’s a major disparity between what they say is important and how they behave behind the wheel.
COVID-19 brought travel restrictions and the cancellation of many large-group gatherings, but the resulting drop in vehicle miles traveled was accompanied by a surprising surge in traffic deaths. In 2020, approximately 38,680 people were killed on U.S. roads, the most in 13 years.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points to impaired driving, speeding, and the failure to use seat belts as the main reasons for the increase.
“AAA’s research shows a profound disconnect between what people think is socially acceptable and what they actually do when they’re in the driver’s seat,” says AAA Idaho spokesman Matthew Conde. “Good intentions are great, but it will take real commitment to make the roads safer for everyone.”
Every year, AAA’s Traffic Safety Culture Index studies the gap between attitudes and action.
- Most respondents view reading (95%) or typing (96%) a text or email on a hand-held cell phone while driving as very or extremely dangerous, and nearly all respondents believed that their loved ones would disapprove of these actions.
- More respondents believed that drivers risk being caught by the police for using a hand-held mobile device (42%) than in previous years.
- Despite these beliefs, nearly a quarter of drivers admitted to typing or sending a text or email at least once in the past 30 days. More than a third of drivers also reported talking and reading on a hand-held cell phone while behind the wheel.
“It’s interesting that just 20% of Americans view hands-free technology as a serious distraction, but it can produce the same mental workload as a hand-held device,” Conde said. “If you’re about to have a complicated or emotionally-charged conversation, it can wait.”
According to the Idaho Transportation Department, distracted driving was a contributing factor in 22 crash deaths last year.
- More than half of respondents (52%) believe that speeding on a freeway is extremely or very dangerous, and roughly 85% of drivers feel the same way about running a red light.
- About 60% of respondents felt that the police would catch a driver for going 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway, yet 45% reported having done so in the past 30 days.
“In the heart of the pandemic, the streets weren’t nearly as crowded, which may have encouraged faster speeds and more reckless weaving in and out of traffic,” Conde said. “Please slow down and maintain a safe following distance.”
ITD reports that in 2020, 78 traffic fatalities were associated with some form of aggressive driving.
- 95% of respondents consider drowsy driving to be very or extremely dangerous, and nearly all respondents felt that a friend or loved one would disapprove of such behavior.
- Yet 17% of drivers admitted to having driven while being so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open at least once in the past 30 days.
“Cold air in your face, singing along with the radio, and even caffeine are only short-term solutions at best,” Conde said. “Our research finds that drivers on just four or five hours of sleep can have lapses in skill and judgment that are very similar to that of an impaired driver. The only real remedy is to pull over someplace safe and get some rest.”
- Most Americans believe that driving while under the influence of impairing substances such as alcohol (95%) or marijuana (70%) is very or extremely dangerous.
- Most drivers (87%) also consider driving after using potentially-impairing prescription drugs to be very or extremely dangerous.
“There’s a lot of confusion about how prescription medications work. Just 40% of respondents believed that the police would detect a person who is impaired by a medication, but impairment is impairment, regardless of the source,” Conde said. “Please talk to your health care provider to learn how your medications can affect your driving before you hit the road.”
ITD reports that impaired driving was a factor in 92 crash fatalities last year.
“Please avoid the temptation of falling into a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ mentality,” Conde said. “With cold weather and dark days ahead, it’s in everyone’s best interest to drive safely.”