Covid – a year of driving dangerously

The pandemic’s effect on road safety and driver behaviour has been assessed around the world. The consistent message from academic research is that a reduction in traffic does not lead to fewer deaths on the road. If anything, it highlights the need for technology to monitor and reform driver behaviour to cut down on aggressive acceleration and speeding – particularly for younger drivers and those who drive commercially.

UK: An increase in dangerous driver behaviours

Stress and anger behind the wheel have increased since the first national lockdown in March 2020. The findings, published by UK road-safety charity Brake and the insurer Direct Line in ‘Driver behaviour’, say that nine out of 10 drivers admitted to feeling stressed or angry when behind the wheel, a rise of 6% from March 2020.

Worryingly, more than 10% of drivers now say they feel stressed or angry every time they are behind the wheel, an increase of 3% over the same period’. Lorraine Price, head of Direct Line Motor Insurance, says:

“Most collisions are caused by human error. Driver behaviour and mood continue to have a big impact on safety for all road users and younger drivers in particular.”

Brake’s director of campaigns Josh Harris adds: “It is a sad truth that many, otherwise avoidable, road crashes are caused by dangerous driver behaviours. From harsh braking and acceleration to road rage and risky overtaking, these behaviours contribute to the thousands of fatal and serious collisions that occur on Britain’s roads.”

USA: More younger people die as mileage falls

The National Safety Council has estimated that there were 42,060 fatal car crashes in the United States in 2020 and some 2,830 billion vehicle miles travelled. This reflects an 8% increase in auto-related deaths despite a 13% drop in miles travelled.

The Covid influence can be seen clearly in the drop in mileage and also in that from March to June 2020, there was a significant decrease in fatal crashes for people over the age of 64 as the pandemic made them more likely to stay at home. However, during the same period there was an increase in fatal crashes for younger people (aged 16-44), with a 20% increase in June 2020 on the previous year.

Greece & Saudi Arabia: Harsh acceleration and braking increase in frequency

An analysis of the effect of Covid-19 on driving behaviour and road safety has indicated that driver behaviour worsened as traffic volumes fell. The research used data captured by a smartphone app and based its results on the two countries with the most completed journeys – Greece and Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, reduced traffic during lockdown led to an increase in speeds of 6-11% but, more importantly, it also led to more frequent harsh acceleration and harsh braking (up to a 12% increase) as well as increased mobile phone use (up to 42% higher) during March and April 2020, the months when COVID-19 spread was at its peak.

The authors suggest that these findings “must act as the trigger for new and serious behaviour by both the authorities and citizens for safer roads for all, everywhere in the world”.

France: Fewer deaths overall, but not for commercial drivers

The number of road fatalities in mainland France plunged by almost 40% in March 2021 due to lockdown, compared with the same month in 2020. The number of accidents also plummeted by 43%, prompting one insurer (Maif) to reimburse 100m Euros across its 2.8 million customers to take into account the reduced number of accidents.

However, it was not all good news. Speed cameras picked up a 12% increase in excessive speeding (more than 50 km/h over the limit). 

It was also pointed out that, despite reduced traffic, the number of deaths among professional drivers of commercial vehicles or heavy goods vehicles did not fall at all, according to Huffington Post. As Philippe Combaz, divisional commissioner of Marseille police, noted:

“We have fewer people on the roads and a lot more possibilities to accelerate hard.”

Australia: Technology is required to monitor driver behaviour

An analysis in Australia has revealed that while petrol sales declined by 21% nationally during Covid lockdowns, the number of fatal crashes declined by only 10%. And in the state of Queensland, where petrol sales declined by 17%, there was actually an increase in fatal crashes.

The insights gathered from this research indicate that lower traffic volumes alone will not lead to better road safety outcomes.

Instead, the report calls for improved infrastructure on urban and regional roads; enforcement technologies that can be deployed as a deterrent at all times; and driver warning systems in vehicles that can prevent speeding, drink-driving, non-seatbelt wearing and rear-end crashes.

The message is clear

Driver behaviour deteriorates when there are fewer cars on the road. When given the opportunity to speed aggressively, people will take it. And those who bear the brunt are younger drivers and those who drive commercially. There’s also the increased risk of road rage so it’s vital that drivers are encouraged to make the right choices when on the road.

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