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Pandemic phenomenon: Texas traffic is lighter, but deadlier

Few of us will soon forget the effects of the pandemic in our lives and on the nation. One of the most dramatic changes compelled by the pandemic was last year’s April lockdown order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott. The shuttering of businesses and schools significantly reduced traffic in Austin and across the state.

People naturally assumed that with traffic levels down during the pandemic, the number of motor vehicle crashes resulting in severe injuries or fatalities would likewise drop. In fact, the opposite happened. In the first half of last year, the rate of fatalities per mile driven soared 18 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety experts say that when streets, highways and roads opened up, people responded by driving faster.

Off to the races

“Soon after stay-at-home orders began in 2020, reports emerged of drivers turning emptier roadways into risky racetracks,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

According to a study of urban and rural Texas roadways during April 2020 by the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the risk of death or injury is greater when roads are clearer because of increased speed.

Researchers found that during peak-periods on Houston freeways, average speeds rose from less than 45 mph pre-pandemic to 65 mph in April of last year.

The damaging effects of speed

New crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show that even small increases in speed can have enormous effects on crash outcomes.

The two organizations conducted crash tests at three impact speeds: 40, 50 and 56 mph. They found that at 40 mph, “there was minimal intrusion into the driver’s space.” But at 50 and 56 mph, structural damage to the vehicles became more extensive, but more important was the escalation in damage to the crash test dummies strapped into the vehicles with seatbelts.

At both 50 and 56 mph, the force of the upward movement of the steering wheel was so great that even though airbags were deployed, the dummies’ faces smashed into the steering wheels. Measurements from the hundreds of sensors on the dummies “showed a high risk of facial fractures and severe brain injury.”

Of course, real-life injuries to human drivers and vehicle occupants can be even worse when vehicles collide at greater speeds.

Let’s hope that as Austin, the state of Texas and the rest of the U.S. emerge from the pandemic, we will all recognize the immediate and long-term health benefits to be found in caution and slowing down to enjoy life.