Experts say empty roads during rush hours enticed drivers to put the pedal to the metal. - Photo: unsplash.com/Charles Deluvio

Experts say empty roads during rush hours enticed drivers to put the pedal to the metal.

Photo: unsplash.com/Charles Deluvio

The odds that a Virginia driver was going at least 10 mph over the speed limit increased a little more than 50% during March through June 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

IIHS researchers set out to learn how pandemic lockdowns impacted driving behavior and focused on a state-specific study.

The team analyzed data from more than 500 Virginia Department of Transportation speed counters and compared the proportion of vehicles exceeding the speed limit by at least 5 mph and 10 mph in March through June 2020 with the same period in 2019. They then estimated the change in the proportion of drivers speeding by the time of day, day of the week, and type of roadway.

The findings indicate that empty roads during rush hours enticed drivers to put the pedal to the metal.

While traffic volumes at the study sites fell by 25% during Virginia’s lockdown, the proportion of vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more increased 30-40% on all roads other than rural arterials, where there was little change. On weekdays, the proportion of vehicles exceeding the speed limit by at least 10 mph jumped 43% between 6 a.m. and 8:59 a.m. and a whopping 63% between 3 p.m. and 5:59 p.m.

While the study was state-specific, IIHS researchers say national statistics show that this behavior continued even after traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels. Higher travel speeds persisted throughout 2020 and 2021, and other forms of risky driving also became more prevalent.

The end result has been a dire situation on our nation’s roadways. In 2020, crash fatalities nationwide rose 7% even though there was a dramatic decrease in the number of miles Americans drove.

Moreover, fatal collisions involving speeding, alcohol and lack of seatbelt compliance saw particularly large increases, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA). The number of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes in which all three factors played a role rose by 20%.

In 2021, as drivers logged more travel miles, risky behaviors got even worse. NHTSA data shows speeding-related fatalities rose another 5%, the number of unbelted passenger vehicle occupants killed rose another 3%, and deaths in police-reported, alcohol-involved crashes jumped another 5% over 2020 levels.

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