PPACG study outlines need for new strategies to combat increase in serious crashes after COVID-19 lockdowns

A wrecked car is loaded onto a tow hauler

COLORADO SPRINGS – Less traffic during the COVID-19 shutdowns led to wide-open roads and limited traffic enforcement, contributing to an increased rate of serious crashes and fatalities even though overall crashes declined. As lockdowns were lifted, the same mentality of aggressive driving, speeding and the belief that drivers could evade enforcement persisted and overtook impairment from alcohol and drugs as the top factor in serious crashes and deaths, in a new study from the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

The Serious Crash Study was commissioned to evaluate why, when other COVID-19 transportation activity returned to pre-pandemic levels, the rate of serious injury and death continued on roadways, and why aggression and speed continue to lead impairment as the leading cause. Since no existing research or studies could be found, this study evaluated many reports and articles from across various disciplines and across the country; interviewed local stakeholders and national industry experts; and collected more than 3,100 local survey responses as a first step to evaluate why the trends persisted and to develop potential recommendations to address them.

Impact of COVID-19 lockdowns

The study team identified the unique set of circumstances that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown period, which it believed enabled the learning of unsafe driving behavior that turned into habits:

  • Vehicle miles traveled dropped to 2014 levels and the rush hour disappeared.
  • The safest drivers stayed home while the least safe drivers remained on the roads.
  • Reduced enforcement.
  • Increased anxiety and other possible changes in drivers’ state of mind.

“The challenge is unique and somewhat unprecedented in the analysis of traffic safety,” wrote the study team. “Rather than an apparent fault of technology, design, or external condition, or physical feature, the trend is partly driven by a noted increase in aggressive behavior.”

Potential solutions

Local survey results showed that a plurality (40%) believed that enforcement motivates drivers to drive better, confirming research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When asked a similar question on what intervention would be the most effective in promoting driver safety, a majority (58%) believed increased enforcement would be most effective.

While enforcement was considered a short-term solution by the study team with the potential for immediate effects, increasing educational efforts with young drivers was considered a long-term, more sustainable solution. Public responses to the best ways to conduct educational efforts were split, and the evaluation of national campaigns from multiple reports from NHTSA were also inconclusive. The most successful educational efforts were for seatbelt use in the southeastern United States when it was paired with enforcement activity.

But the study team suggested that a more aggressive enforcement in a post-COVID-19 environment may not yield the desired results. The team suggested that traffic professionals should work more closely with behavioral experts and incorporate a more holistic approach to aggressive enforcement.

“Effective and sustainable countermeasures should not just target aggressive drivers,” the study team wrote. “While it may be a longer term solution, countermeasures that effectively communicate to those in the middle helps change the character of the daily commute and reassures those who are already safe drivers. It also shines a spotlight on those who continue aggressive behaviors as atypical.”

The study outlined four potential changes in strategies in the post-lockdown environment:

  • Aggressive enforcement by itself could trigger more distrust and aggression. The level of distrust between people and between authority/government and people is certainly elevated.
  • Incorporate more specific statistics into safety messages to better communicate trends.
  • Change from targeting drivers directly to a longer view and approach the problem as learned behaviors.
  • Better planning and reporting to prioritize limited safety grant funds.

Next Steps

Due to limited scope and funds, the study team identified other potential topics that could be further explored. Although rigorous, the study itself was not peer-reviewed, and the survey was not considered scientific, and so further investigation of the topic is justified.

About the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments

PPACG’s 16 local governments collaborate on issues that cross political boundaries and work together to reach solutions that benefit the entire Pikes Peak region. PPACG’s primary focus is regional planning in transportation, aging issues, military impact planning and air and water quality.