Statistics Show Tradeoff—Fewer Accidents but More Serious Crashes
Researchers have long known that the number of motor vehicle accidents correlates with the number of cars on the road and amount of time spent driving. The accident toll typically fluctuates when gas prices change—accidents go up when gas prices go down, and vice versa. With Pennsylvania on lockdown for most of the last two months, the reduced number of motorists on the roadways would seem to translate to fewer accidents and safer roads. Is that what’s really happening?
Though statistics are not available for Pennsylvania, evidence from other states suggests the dramatic decline in motorists on the streets and highways across the country has indeed led to fewer accidents. However, a higher-than-normal percentage of those accidents are serious or fatal.
The decline in the number of accidents is easily explained. Research has shown that the number of accidents is fairly predictable, based on the number of miles traveled by motorists. That accident rate has changed very little, despite efforts to make roads safer. Accordingly, when traffic decreases dramatically—California and New York both report traffic to be down more than 50%—the raw number of accidents goes down.
But what accounts for the higher percentage of serious and fatal accidents? New York City had more traffic fatalities in March 2020 than the same period a year earlier, even though there was an 80% decrease in vehicle miles. Experts say that, with fewer vehicles on the roads, motorists are traveling at much higher speeds. The average speed on one section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was four times faster this March than it was a year ago.
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