Since April, U.S. driving has dropped off by about 26%. That means roads are much more open, and some drivers have been taking advantage of the situation. Unfortunately, the fatal traffic accident rate during the lockdown is the highest rate since 2005.
For the three-month period ending June 30, that rate jumped to 1.42 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. That's a 30% increase over the same period last year, according to preliminary data just released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
By contrast, the fatality rate for that period in 2019 was only 1.10 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. That was the lowest rate since 2014.
Why the spike in roadway deaths? According to the same NHTSA study, those "drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol."
According to Reuters, NHTSA's traffic data indicate an increase in overall average speeds, along with a jump in extreme speeding. Some data also suggests that people are wearing seat belts at a lower rate during the lockdown.
NHTSA also thinks that some traffic enforcement may have been reduced because of the lockdown. "It is possible that drivers' perception that they may be caught breaking a law was reduced," reads the report.
Moreover, the motorists who are known for caution, older Americans, may be minimizing their driving as they avoid outings that could result in a COVID-19 diagnosis.
"In short, the stay-at-home orders may have led the population of drivers during the height of the health crisis to have been smaller but more willing to take risks," said the agency.
This is an alarming trend. Some people apparently perceive the relative openness of the road as an invitation to take fewer safety precautions. Deputy NHTSA administrator James Owens said the agency feels an urgency to turn the trend around.
That urgency is well founded. Extreme speeding, distraction and drunk driving are not behaviors to toy with. Be extra careful out on the roads while the lockdown continues.