Three months into the coronavirus pandemic, the United States faces another crisis: a surge in speeding and reckless behavior on the nation’s roadways.
“We have had half the traffic and twice as many fatalities,” Hanson said. “We have more available lane space for drivers to use and abuse . . . and people are really, really abusing.”
Reports of drag racing, drivers chasing land-speed records, and more speed-related crashes began setting off alarm bells for police agencies across the country almost immediately after states began their coronavirus lockdowns in mid-March and traffic volumes fell dramatically.
In Atlanta, a police officer, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was supposed to be in self-quarantine, was pulled over by a state trooper who clocked him driving 130 mph in a 65 mph zone on Interstate 75 last month.
In New York, a police officer assigned to a coronavirus response unit was killed April 25 when a driver accused of drag racing on the Cross Island Parkway struck the back of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the New York Daily News reported.
And in early April, social media exploded with celebrations of a new coast-to-coast speed record amid the coronavirus shutdowns, following reports that a crew of three men drove from New York to Los Angeles in 26 hours 38 minutes. To make that time, they would have had to be traveling at more than 100 mph.
Indeed, traffic data shows average speeds have more than doubled in some cities and are significantly above the posted limits on roads typically known for their crawling traffic.
Police agencies from New York City to Los Angeles are reporting writing more speeding tickets. State troopers in Minnesota, Maryland, Virginia and California, among others, have clocked drivers topping speeds of 130 mph.
“The trend is very concerning,” said Catherine Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “At a time of national crisis, drivers should not be turning our roadways into racetracks.”
'Every mile is riskier'
Traffic nationwide is down 41 percent compared with pre-pandemic volumes, according to the transportation-data firm Inrix. Some of the country’s busiest highways have emptied, with volumes down by 50 percent in Los Angeles, 60 percent in New York City and 68 percent in Washington, Inrix said.
But traffic incidents, such as crashes, have dropped only 21 percent nationwide.
In some of the most congested areas of the country, average speeds have increased by as much as 250 percent.
For example, the average 5 p.m. speed on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles went from a crawling 19 mph to 68 mph, Inrix says. In Chicago, the average speed on Interstate 290 more than doubled to 62 mph from 24 mph. In the Washington region, average speeds during the evening rush rose from 27 mph to nearly 70 mph on the Capital Beltway, well above the posted 55 mph limit.
It is not surprising that speeds are up, given that traffic congestion during the commute has largely disappeared. But officials and experts say what’s troubling is people driving in excess of 80 mph on highways — and even worse, on neighborhood streets shared with bicyclists, scooters and pedestrians.
“With less cars on the road, we would expect that crashes and citations would be down. And what we’re seeing is an increase in dangerous speeding and dangerous driving,” said Jeff Marootian, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation.
What’s more, those speeding drivers are also more distracted. A study released Thursday by the data analytics company Zendrive found motorists are braking harder and using their phones more while driving. The analysis of millions of miles of driving data based on smartphone sensors found speeding is up by 27 percent on average, while hard braking climbed 25 percent. Phone usage on the nation’s roadways steadily increased in the weeks following the stay-at-home guidelines, up by 38 percent in mid-April, according to the report.
The behavioral changes contributed to a 20 percent increase in collisions per million miles traveled since the beginning of the shutdowns, the report says.
“As a result, every minute spent on the road is riskier, every mile is riskier,” the report said. “The data shows our anxiety over social distancing and growing attachment to screens has carried over into our driving behaviors.”
In the Washington region, average speeds are up by as much as 50 percent on some routes in the nation’s capital, city transportation officials said, and there has been a troubling increase in people driving 15 mph or more over the speed limit. The problem is more pronounced in the Washington suburbs, where a string of speed-related crashes led police to step up enforcement and issue hundreds of traffic citations in recent weeks.
Maryland State Police beefed up enforcement on the Capital Beltway in late April after responding to crashes where speed was suspected as a cause. Police investigated five separate tractor-trailer collisions in one day, on April 30, at least three “caused by speed too great for conditions,” police said. Only minor injuries were reported.
State officials made a direct plea to drivers last week to slow down, saying the string of crashes was putting people at risk, including essential workers during the pandemic, and resulting in unnecessary road shutdowns and delays.
“Please avoid the temptation to speed on the unusual open road,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said in a statement. “If you do need to travel, please do your part and slow down.”
Although traffic is down 50 percent in the state, the number of crashes has been reduced by only 24 percent, while fatalities are down about 30 percent, according to preliminary data on incidents investigated by Maryland State Police.
Maryland state troopers have issued more than 1,000 traffic citations and warnings on highways in suburban Washington since March 15. On Sunday alone, troopers cited 22 drivers who were traveling at least 25 mph over the 55 mph speed limit on a section of the Beltway in Prince George’s County. One driver was caught going 136 mph.
Across the Potomac River, in Virginia, state troopers have caught people flying through 55 mph zones on Interstate 95 at speeds as high as 132 mph.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said troopers have seen an uptick in more “extreme speeding” on interstates that are less crowded during the stay-at-home directives, and they are more actively enforcing posted speed limits.
Traffic fatalities in Virginia dropped nearly 30 percent since the state of emergency went into effect in mid-March, according to preliminary crash data. But speed has been a factor in a larger share of serious crashes during the coronavirus emergency, contributing to nearly half of the 72 traffic fatalities in the state since March 13.
“We also remind drivers that an open road is not an open invitation to speed,” Geller said.
'It's a selfish attitude'
So, what’s going on? The simplest explanation for the phenomenon, some psychologists and public safety experts say, is that the roads are open, giving people room to speed. Then there’s the collective effect: If everyone in traffic is moving faster, individual drivers will drive faster even if it’s above the speed limit.
But other factors may also be contributing, experts and advocates say, noting that opportunities to speed also exist during normal times — at night when roads are desolate, for example.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which works to improve traffic safety, said speeders may be under the impression that police are not prioritizing traffic stops during the pandemic. Others, he said, may be aware that some police departments are operating with limited resources because many of their officers are infected with the virus or because they have reallocated services to the health crisis response.
“People are doing it because they think they can get away with it,” Adkins said.
Psychologist Emanuel Robinson, senior study director at Westat’s Center for Transportation, Technology and Safety Research, said motorists speeding now may be doing so for the same reasons they do in normal times.
“It could be boredom, which is one of the reasons that typically comes up for why people speed. They want excitement; they want the adrenaline rush of it,” Robinson said.
People dealing with the stress of the pandemic and dramatic change in their lifestyles might find speeding a liberating experience.
“They get some excitement out of it as a way to maybe counteract some of the negative and stressed feelings that they’re having right now,” Robinson said. “This might be kind of an emotional release that we’re seeing up here. It’s just like we’ve seen risky behavior pop up in other situations when people are under stress. They turn to drinking or to drugs or in this case, speeding is a drug.”
There is some truth to that theory, said Hanson, of Minnesota’s traffic safety office, recalling a case from two weeks ago when a driver who was pulled over while traveling at 110 mph in a 60 mph zone in the Minneapolis area could come up with only one answer to why he was speeding.
“He said, ‘I am just out for a joyride,’ ” Hanson recalled.
“It’s a selfish attitude,” Hanson said. Especially during the pandemic, when hospitals are stressed, people are dying from the virus and a preventable crash would add another burden to first responders.
“We just can’t afford to make bad decisions behind the wheel,” he said.
Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic commissioner, said he is puzzled by the surge in speeding offenses in the city, which has been the country’s biggest hot spot during the pandemic.
“There is no logic,” he said, noting that speeding citations have more than doubled in the city over the course of two months. The average number of citations issued daily went from 10,800 in early February to 24,800 in April.
FDR Drive, typically one of the slowest in Manhattan because of congestion, has now been nicknamed the FDR 500 — as in the Indy 500, said Schwartz, whose firm analyzes traffic data.
“These people are not only creating a danger to themselves, a danger to others, but it’s at a time when New York needs every hospital bed it could get for a victim of the virus. This is just not only dumb, but incredibly selfish,” Schwartz said.
Traffic safety advocates are pushing for more enforcement and education, concerned that the bad behavior could continue as states reopen and more people return to the roads.
Adkins wants elected leaders to add another message to residents in their coronavirus briefings to the public.
“When you’re out socially distanced, wear a mask,” he said. “And when you get behind the wheel, slow down.”