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COVID-19 SAH Orders Didn’t Reduce Traffic Deaths Across the Country

Roads Deadlier Than Ever During the COVID-19 Pandemic

From March through June, governors issued stay-at-home (SAH) orders that reduced the total amount of traffic, but car crash fatalities increased by more than 37% across the United States. Pennsylvanians traveled 8.4 billion miles less in March, April and May 2020 than they did during the same months of 2019. However, the crash fatality rate increased from 10.92 people killed per billion miles traveled to 13.38 killed per billion miles, and this trend could continue as the SAH orders are lifted.

Pennsylvanians Scale Back Travel

When Governor Tom Wolf issued SAH orders for nonessential workers and shut down schools, fewer people had reasons to drive. People were working from home on a remote basis. Some people were furloughed or laid off. Children had to do remote learning at home. Government offices, libraries, restaurants, bars and many other businesses closed. The places people did need to go, and could still go to, such as the pharmacy or grocery store, did not require driving a great distance. Most of these places are accessible on local streets that don't have long stretches that are conducive to fast rates of travel.

Why SAH Orders Were Issued

Governor Wolf issued the SAH orders with the intent of slowing the spread of COVID-19. He and other state leaders, public health professionals and doctors wanted to provide enough time for hospitals to ramp up their capacity. The goal was to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with an onslaught of COVID-19 patients.

Who Was Still Driving?

Some individuals, including first responders, grocery workers and pharmacists, still had to drive to work. Those who live several miles away from where they work might have taken an interstate. The openness of the highways, which don't have stop signs or traffic lights, might have inspired a sense of freedom and unleashed a long-standing desire for drivers to put the pedal to the metal. Some people disobeyed the SAH orders and continued traveling for leisure or personal reasons.

Speeding Was a Big Factor in the Increased Fatality Rate

Speeding increases the risk that a person will die in a car crash. With higher speeds, there is a greater force of impact. The human body may not be able to sustain the injuries caused by two vehicles crashing at 100 miles per hour. There was also an increase in the fatality rate of single-car accidents. Drivers may have hit utility poles, trees or other obstacles while traveling at high rates of speed. These accidents can be as deadly as two- or multi-car collisions at these speeds.

How Driving Patterns Changed During the SAH Orders

In April, speeds on Philadelphia's interstates increased by an average of 21%. This was at the peak of the COVID-19 business closures. In the Lehigh Valley in June, the planning commission noted that motorists driving on Route 22 were traveling at speeds of 15 to 30 miles per hour higher than the posted 55 miles-per-hour limit.

Pennsylvania State Police Take Action

Economic recessions usually lead to a decrease in traffic since people don't have jobs to get to. However, Pennsylvania State Police reported that the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't been like recessions of the past. Despite there being fewer people on the road, the individuals who were there were driving more dangerously than patrol officers expected. Officers noted more speeding, especially extreme violations of the speed limit. They noted that they saw more drivers going at least 100 miles per hour in 65 miles-per-hour zones than they had ever noted. The free, open roads might have inspired people to take these risks. Drivers might have assumed that with fewer cars on the road, there was less of a risk of getting into a collision if they traveled at a high rate of speed.

Drivers Get Speeding Tickets

The Pennsylvania State Highway Patrol wrote 103 tickets for drivers traveling at speeds greater than 100 miles per hour in April. This was a 39.7% drop from April 2019. However, there were 222 tickets issued for the same level of speeding violation in May. This represented a 15.6% increase from May 2019. The fee for this ticket is at least $102.50, and it increases for every additional 5 miles a person drives over the speed limit. If the speeding causes a crash, drivers may be charged with reckless driving. This charge incurs a penalty of up to 90 days in jail, a $200 fine and a six-month license suspension if the driver is found guilty.

How Speeding Increases Traffic Fatalities

Speeding has always been one of the leading factors that contribute to traffic fatalities. In the United States, speeding accounts for an average of 26% of traffic fatalities every year. Traveling at a high rate of speed reduces the amount of time that a driver has to react to a dangerous situation, such as debris in the road, sudden stopping of the vehicle ahead, a deer in the road or an out-of-control driver just ahead of him or her. Increased speeds also cause a vehicle to take longer to come to a complete stop. Safety features, including anti-lock brakes, are less effective at high rates of speed.

Pennsylvania's Pandemic Traffic Statistics

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation released some traffic statistics from spring 2020 and compared them to spring 2019. In March 2019, there were 75 fatalities and 8.11 billion miles traveled. In March 2020, there were 77 fatalities and 6.56 billion miles traveled. It's worth noting that April 2020 saw a big drop in fatalities as well as total miles traveled. In April 2019, there were 110 fatalities and 8.68 billion miles traveled. In April 2020, there were 63 fatalities and 4.64 billion miles traveled. While the total number of deaths declined, the rate stayed about the same as the previous year. In May 2019, there were 97 fatalities for 9.02 billion miles traveled. May 2020 saw 94 fatalities for 6.28 billion miles traveled, which was a significant increase in the rate of deaths per billion miles traveled. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has not yet compiled the summer traffic data for June through September.

What Could Happen as SAH Orders Are Lifted

People who have gotten used to the less-crowded roads may attempt to keep speeding. The lifting of SAH orders just before the autumn and winter holidays may lead to an increase in drunk driving crashes. Even though bars and restaurants are still limited in their capacities, Governor Wolf signed a bill allowing bars and restaurants to sell alcohol on a to-go basis. This could also cause more crashes from drunk driving. The holiday season may have fewer parties, but this is the time of the year when drunk driving and inclement weather both cause an increase in auto crashes. If you or your loved one is injured or killed while driving in Pennsylvania, it's important to speak with an experienced Allentown personal injury attorney. You can learn about your rights and find out what remedies are available to you. Our Allentown personal injury attorney provides consultations to people who have sustained injuries in auto accidents. To learn more, contact our Lehigh Valley law office at (610) 435-7400, or complete our online contact form to request a consultation.

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