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By Greg Barnes
The number of people dying on North Carolina’s roads increased last year, despite far fewer people driving because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At times, the number of people on the state’s roads declined by as much as 40 percent, said Mark Ezzell, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The largest decline was primarily due to Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order, which began March 30 and lasted until May 22.
Overall during 2020, statistics provided by Ezzell show, driving in North Carolina fell nearly 19 percent.
Yet the statistics show that 1,622 people died in crashes this year compared with 1,479 in 2019, an increase of 9.7 percent. The number of fatal crashes in 2020 also increased, by 114.
What’s going on?
So what is driving the increase in the fatal crash rate, not just in North Carolina but across the country?
Ezzell and Arthur Goodwin of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center aren’t exactly sure. Both say they continue to study the phenomenon.
But they have some pretty solid ideas.
“There’s a sense of emotional distraction here, and a sense of kind of risk-taking behavior that we’re seeing a little more,” Ezzell said. “They are a little more prevalent on the roads now, during COVID, than previous times and I wonder whether or not that plays a role in this.”
Ezzell and Goodwin point to a reduction in the number of people wearing seat belts. Goodwin said an observational study by the research center found that seat belt use by front-seat drivers declined in the state from about 90 percent in 2019 to 85 percent last year.
Ezzell said there is a difference between distracted driving and emotionally distracted driving. Distracted driving generally involves such things as using a cell phone while behind the wheel or playing with the radio dials when people should be paying attention to the road, he said.
“But it can also involve emotional distractions, and I think a lot of what you’re seeing is emotionally distracted driving,” he said. “People are worried about family, worried about their future, worried about their health, and they’re just not doing some of the things that normally would come naturally and as a routine to them because their minds are not concentrating on driving. And one of those things is using your seat belt.”
The figures Ezzell provided bear that out. Of the 1,622 people who died on North Carolina roads last year, 518 were not wearing a seat belt, an increase of 21 percent from the previous year.
Goodwin said the state also saw an increase from last year in single-vehicle crashes, lane-departure crashes and crashes in rural areas.
“We know rural roads are more dangerous to begin with than urban because of the higher speed limits,” Goodwin said, adding that trees in many rural areas of North Carolina are closer to the roadways than in other states.
“Hitting fixed objects is never going to be a good outcome,” he said.
Another factor that may be increasing the rate of fatal crashes during the pandemic has to do with speed. With the roads less congested, some people have taken to speeding on them, Ezzell and Goodwin both said.
“Even increases of just 5 or 10 mph greatly increases the risk of people getting injured or killed,” Goodwin said. “Since there’s less congestion on roads … it’s easier to speed.”
Ezzell put it another way.
“Obviously a congested road is a road that you can’t speed on,” he said. “So congestion is a natural barrier to speeding. And if they’re not as congested, a lot of people are using that as a license to really ramp up their speeds.”
Deaths attributed to speeding increased 7.7 percent from 2019, according to the documents from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program.
Older people staying home
There is at least one bit of good news, though. Goodwin said older drivers, those ages 65 and up, were involved in fewer crashes.
“Older drivers do seem to be staying at home, they seem to be driving less,” Goodwin said.
The number of older people who died in crashes fell 13.8 percent last year from 2019, the figures show.
More study needed
Ezzell and Goodwin said they don’t have all of the answers yet as to why more fatal crashes are happening. That is still being studied, they said.
“It’s hard to know exactly why until after there’s been an opportunity for studying, there’s been an opportunity for looking at it,” Ezzell said. “The problem is, with COVID, we’re in the midst of a public health crisis on our roads, and we’ve got to do those studies, eventually, but right now we’ve got to solve an issue.”
That issue, he said, is reducing the number of fatal crashes during a pandemic.
“So we are trying to get messages out around our roadways on the importance of driving safely,” he said. “We’re working with our law enforcement partners that have, you know, even in the midst of a public crisis ramped up their efforts to patrol the roads. We are working with our other public health partners to continue doing messaging work. And we’re going to be looking at researching why this is an issue.”
The rate of fatal crashes is not just increasing in North Carolina. It’s up throughout the country.
Statistical projections by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the number of deaths on the country’s highways declined by 2 percent in the first half of 2020. But preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration showed that the number of vehicle miles traveled fell by 16.6 percent. That means the fatality rate increased from 1.06 deaths per 100 million miles driven to 1.25.
The fatality rate in North Carolina was even higher — 1.5 deaths for every 100 million miles driven, which is up from 2019’s rate of 1.48, according to the figures from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program.