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Unsafe drivers made up larger share of motorists during pandemic, study says

Younger and riskier drivers were increasingly on the roads during a surge in traffic fatalities across the country

A damaged new vehicle on a tow truck. (iStock)
5 min

Although there have been fewer cars on the road nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic, a study released Monday found that younger and riskier drivers were increasingly on the roads during a surge in traffic fatalities across the country.

The more dangerous drivers made up a small proportion of drivers overall, but they were likely to take the most risks as traffic levels were down, according to an AAA study. The study sought to understand why traffic deaths rose while driving was down at least 20 percent during much of 2020. During that time, crashes involving impairment, speeding, red-light running, aggressiveness and non-seatbelt usage spiked to their highest level in more than a decade, AAA said.

“We saw this small group of people who were driving more than they did before the pandemic were the same people who were the highest-risk drivers on the road,” said AAA senior researcher Brian Tefft.

D.C. traffic deaths at 14-year high with low-income areas hardest hit

Traffic fatalities jumped 12 percent to 31,700 deaths in the first nine months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020 — the largest year-over-year rise since at least 1975, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2020, about 38,680 people died in vehicle crashes, the highest since 2007.

The District’s 40 traffic fatalities last year were the most since 2007, with nearly half occurring in Wards 7 and 8 generally east of the Anacostia River, a Washington Post analysis last week showed. Those two wards, the city’s poorest, contain less than one-quarter of Washington’s population. More than 4,000 people were injured last year, according to city data.

D.C. traffic deaths at 14-year high with low-income areas hardest hit

The AAA American Driving Survey found that daily driving trips made during April 2020 decreased, on average, by 42 percent. During the second half of 2020, daily trips remained 20 percent lower than the second half of 2019.

But researchers said drivers staying home were more likely to be safer drivers. The drivers who reduced their driving during the pandemic were generally of middle age and disproportionately female, a group the study said had a comparatively lower risk of involvement in fatal crashes.

Four percent of drivers drove more than before the pandemic, the study said. That group had a median age of 39, compared with 50 for the overall driving population.

The more frequent drivers tended to be disproportionately male. But after researchers accounted for age, gender and how much they drove, the frequent drivers also were those who are more likely to speed, purposefully run red lights, read texts while driving, drive without seat belts, change lanes aggressively or drive after using marijuana or alcohol, the study said.

D.C. finds enforcement shortcomings as it grapples with rise in reckless driving

According to D.C. police, speeding and impaired driving were two factors contributing the most to fatal crashes in the District last year. About 20 percent of fatal crashes involved impaired driving while up to 40 percent involve speeding. Police said driver error including distracted driving accounted for about 20 percent of fatal crashes.

Meanwhile, police in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia have reported a rise in street racing and other illegal car meetups during the pandemic that have taken over strip-mall parking lots and intersections.

The reasons younger men drove more are unknown, Tefft said.

“Bottom line, we don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “We really need to do more research with other sources of data on that going forward.”

Researchers said factors could include more active and social lifestyles because of their ages or the possibility that drivers who took more risks also had less fear of the pandemic.

“I would argue that that probably applies to all aspects of their life,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director for Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research. “Whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s risk-taking behind the wheel, whether it’s substance use and you know, all of it.”

Burned rubber, doughnuts and smoke. Unruly car meets, street racing disrupt roads and mobilize police.

Reaching members of that group, Nelson said, might require new tactics to promote road safety because risk-takers might be less swayed by safety campaigns that threaten consequences.

But researchers must first determine what motivated them to drive more often during the past two years.

“If we have a population of drivers who are less averse to risk, they will be less compelled or swayed by those threats of the law,” he said. “We’ll have to think more creatively and sort of peel back that onion thinking specifically about that group of drivers to understand what will motivate them.”

In D.C., residents raise alarms over rise in drivers striking children

The lack of traffic enforcement during the pandemic might also have played a part, researchers noted.

During the first months of the pandemic, some law enforcement agencies encouraged officers to make fewer traffic stops, focusing on the most severe of violations to reduce contacts patrol officers made with drivers. Tefft said another theory is increased law enforcement hesitancy to take action — emboldening drivers — during unrest and demonstrations against police brutality after George Floyd’s death.

“I think it all probably plays a role,” he said.