If you were out on the highways and byways between April and May 2020, you might have noticed a dearth of cars on the road. Or perhaps you read or heard reports about the dramatic reduction in vehicle emissions during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Either way, there’s no doubt that at that time a lot of traffic came to a proverbial screeching halt. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, miles driven dropped by 40% during April of 2020.[i]

Now that we’re many months into the pandemic response, the mass shutdowns have for the most part subsided and things are somewhat back to what can only be described as a new normal. Traffic is up, but still not to the usual levels. September 2020 traffic statistics show an estimated 8.6% reduction in vehicles on the road year over year―with an approximate 10% reduction in urban areas and an approximate 5% reduction in rural areas.[ii]

The good news and the bad news

As traffic levels trended downward, so did the number of driving violations―and the number of accidents and insurance claims. While that might sound like good news, there’s a flip side to it. Though violation levels declined, violation severity has increased. The National Safety Council reports that compared to 2019, there was a 20% jump in the traffic accident death rate between January and June 2020.[iii] This increase occurred despite a 17% reduction in the number of miles driven for the same period.

It appears that increases in major speeding and driving under the influence (DUI) violations are contributing to the increase in fatalities. Reduced congestion on the interstates is a factor that can lead to higher rates of speed and experts also theorize that increased levels of stress from the pandemic are negatively impacting driving behavior and leading to these elevated results.[iv]

Preliminary data from a recent study we conducted (more to come about this in the new year) support these findings, indicating that during the time of COVID-19:

  • Major speeding has almost tripled as a percentage of total speeding violations (see chart below).
  • Speed-racing, while relatively lower in absolute numbers, has seen no reduction in absolute counts.
  • DUIs, which have changed very little in recent periods, as ratio to total violations, increased significantly, with an especially steep increase for March and April.
  • DUIs have remained elevated through 2020 at more than two times the ratio to total violations, relative to 2019 figures.
  • While DUIs in general appear to be at an elevated rate compared to total violations, DUI rates for female drivers have increased over the rates for male drivers.

These observations are concerning and have implications for both insurance carriers and consumers. We’ll be discussing carrier impact in more detail as we fully report out on this data in the coming year. Suffice it to say, in light of this new information, carriers will need to understand any changes in risk exposure.

The message is to stay safe, everywhere

For consumers, the admonishment in the time of COVID-19 to “stay safe” applies to more than social distancing, wearing a mask and taking other measures to protect your health. It includes staying as safe as you can while you’re out on the roads. The holiday season often brings with it more accidents, as traffic becomes more congested, people are distracted by holiday responsibilities, and holiday revelry in the form of increased alcohol consumption makes its impact.

Hopefully, there will be less risk this holiday season, as people have been advised to stay home and not make typical holiday visits. However, Thanksgiving travel was heavy, despite warnings. Given that this time of year is full of holiday events and represents the busiest shopping season, expecting people to stay off the roads is unrealistic. If you must travel, even simply to your local store, please be aware of the enhanced traffic risks around you and do your best to stay road-safe this holiday season.

[i] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/tvt.cfm

[ii] Ibid

[iii] https://www.nsc.org/in-the-newsroom/nsc-estimates-us-saw-a-20-jump-in-motor-vehicle-death-rates-in-first-six-months-of-2020-despite-quarantines#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20experienced%20an%20estimated,driven%20between%20January%20and%20June.

[iv] Ibid