Car crashes down but fatality rates up

The impact of Covid-19 on road safety

Images of empty roads became a symbol of the pandemic, but what was the real impact on road safety?

The year 2020 and 2021 will be remembered for Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected millions of people around the world, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Some national governments responded by imposing lockdowns in order to reduce the spread of infection and potential deaths, but this had negative economic and social repercussions and raised the question of what the main priority should be – either on public health or the economy?

One of the principle restrictions introduced was to limit personal mobility, as air and land traffic were two of the main vectors for dissemination of Covid-19. One of the negative consequences of social mobility, of course, are road traffic collisions, with the resulting material damage, economic loss, social costs, physical injuries and, in the worst cases, fatalities.

Every year, around 1.35 million people are killed on roads all around the world. In fact, this is the eighth leading cause of death globally and also results in up to 50 million injuries each year (World Health Organisation [WHO] 2019).

One would have immediately expected that, globally, there would have been a significant reduction in vehicle usage, crashes and injuries, both fatal or otherwise. The picture, however, has been far from as straightforward as this.

Largely, across the globe, there were fewer road crashes as people stayed at home during the pandemic. There are a number of reasons behind the decrease in road traffic collisions (RTCs) that are related to factors that affect traffic volume.

Lockdowns, school closures and suspension of other activities inevitably meant that fewer vehicles were on the streets and, thus, at risk of collision. Similarly, increased unemployment and remote working further contributed to this reduction in traffic volume. Fear of catching Covid-19 was another reason that kept people from commuting, regardless of the government restrictions.

Covid-19 has also led to an increase in unemployment, and there is clear empirical evidence that crashes decrease during recessions. This may be as a result of fewer people driving to work and reasons relating to affordability of driving or activities associated with commuting by car.

Intuitively, it would seem obvious that with less people on the roads, there will have been a lower number of RTCs, but evidence is now available to explain what the actual affect has been. Sadly, a number of factors, it is believed, have skewed the figures in an alarming way.

Firstly, lower traffic volume would create the opportunity to speed on empty streets. Speeding is a major collision risk factor, and we know that speed has a major impact on the deadliness of crashes. Estimates suggests that for every additional one mile per hour in speed, there is a 4%-5% increase in fatal crashes.

For pedestrians, there is a 99% likelihood of surviving a vehicle hitting them at 20mph, but that falls to 80% when the speed rises to 30mph.

Emerging evidence from some countries suggests the accidents which did happen were far more deadly as the cars were travelling faster – according to the WHO.

Secondly, worrying about loved ones who have Covid-19 may also cause distraction, thus leading to crashes. It has been previously shown that those whose partner is hospitalised are at a higher risk of being involved in a collision.

Thirdly, sleep length and patterns have been affected by conditions linked to the pandemic. People tended to sleep later and spend more time in bed during lockdowns. However, the quality of sleep deteriorated and circadian rhythms were disrupted. Sleep deprivation and fatigue, of course, play a significant part in the risk of an RTC.

Finally, recent evidence has shown that alcohol consumption, which is a major risk factor, increased during the pandemic. However, as bars and restaurants remained closed during lockdowns, drinking may have taken place mostly at home where there is almost immediate access to cars.

It is, however, a mixed picture. In the UK in 2020 there was a 14% decrease in fatalities on the previous year – an exact match with the 14% decline in traffic volumes, according to the government.

In Northern Ireland, where there was a decrease in RTCs, but no change in fatalities during the lockdown. In other countries, fatality rates rocketed, for example, in Madrid an analysis showed that the rate of fatal collisions was 470% higher in April 2021.

A recent study presents evidence of an increase in RTC fatalities in the USA (despite reduced traffic volumes) which the author attributed to the “impact of social distancing on compliance with social norms”.

In 2020 the WHO Director General commented, ‘Due to lockdowns and people working from home, mobility deceased in the pandemic. This has led to fewer road crashes. Overall, however, people often drive at higher speeds when there is less traffic and the number of deaths did not decrease… to the same degree”

The data from the Association of British Insurers shows that with people being asked to stay at home, other than for essential travel, insurance claims in 2020 were at 2.1 million – down 19% on the previous year. Average pay outs per claim rose, but even so there was a 6% reduction in pay outs compared to the previous year.

Drivers had, of course, hoped that the cost of insurance premiums would come down to the reflect the lower number of claims but, in fact, the average cost of an insurance premium fell by only 1%.

There is some debate among commentators about what might happen when lockdown ends. Some are concerned that there will be a spike in accidents as people return to the roads because their driving skills are rusty or because of a lack of experience of driving over the last couple of years.

Others point out that we will be living in a ‘new normal’ where there will be less commuting to work as many people continue to work from home, and hence less road users and fewer accidents.

It is hoped that after this difficult period of the pandemic, at least one outcome might be positive and injuries and deaths on our roads will not increase again.

Car crashes down but fatality rates upCar crashes down but fatality rates upCraig Butler, author of ‘Car crashes down but fatality rates up’ is an Associate at Wolferstans Solicitors in Plymouth and MASS Regional Co-ordinator for the South West



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