New research from the AAA Foundation finds that only 4% of motorists increased their driving during the pandemic and they were typically young males — a statistically riskier driver group than the average population. Moreover, this group self-reported higher rates of dangerous driving long after the darkest days of the pandemic — which could, in part, account for the recent rise in fatalities.
Overall, motor vehicle travel decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet fatalities increased nationwide. The new study explores why and finds a correlation between a greater share of higher-risk motorists on the road and the rise in roadway deaths.
In the early months of the pandemic, the average daily number of driving trips made by U.S. adults decreased by an estimated 42%, rebounded slightly in the months that followed, and eventually leveled off in the second half of 2020 at levels roughly 20% below those observed in the second half of 2019.
However, nationally, preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate that approximately 13% more people died on U.S. roads in the second half of 2020 than in the second half of 2019.
The upshot of the research is that people who drove more during the pandemic appear to have picked up bad habits that continue to stick.
For example, when surveyed, over half (51%) of those who increased their driving during the pandemic admitted to speeding 10+ mph over the speed limit on a residential street in the past 30 days. That compares to just 35% of people who did not increase their driving during the pandemic.
Some 50% of those who increased driving during the pandemic said they read a text while behind the wheel in the previous 30 days as compared to 33% of those who did not drive often during the pandemic.
Intentional red-light running appears to be another bad — and illegal — habit of the more frequent drivers, with 45% saying they did so in the past month versus 25% of the non-frequent pandemic drivers.
In addition, the pandemic drivers were more likely to change lanes aggressively (43%) and fail to wear a seatbelt (21%) in the past month compared to the less-frequent pandemic drivers with 20% and 12% admitting to the behavior, respectively.
Finally, when asked about impaired driving, those who increased their driving during the pandemic were more likely to have driven impaired while behind the wheel in the past 30-days. Some 13% admitted to alcohol-impaired driving and another 13% said they drove after using cannabis as compared to 6% and 4%, respectively, of the drivers who did not hit the road as often during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the surge in fatalities continues. NHTSA’s latest data for the first nine months of 2021 estimates 31,720 people died in crashes from January through September 2021, an increase of approximately 12% compared to the first nine months of 2020. The AAA Foundation research indicates that a subset of drivers continue to engage in risky driving behaviors that they may have originally honed during the pandemic.