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Coronavirus Driving Habits: Less Traffic on the Roads but Worse Drivers

Risky Driving Habits
Coronavirus Driving Habits – Highway Hazards in Bad Times and Good

Coronavirus driving habits saw fewer people on the roads but more risky, bad driving habits.

Why did car accidents and risky driving patterns increase when COVID-19 hit the USA and we were all told to stay home and off the highways?

Despite coronavirus shutdowns telling everyone to stay home, highway fatalities went up 4.6% in the first nine months of the lockdowns in 2020.

According to the top agency in charge of monitoring safety on the nation’s highways 28,190 people died in highway accidents in the first 9 months of 2020 compared to 26,941 during the same period in the previous years.

The sudden shock of coronavirus shutdowns caused most Americans to immediately rethink all aspects of life.  For many the change meant working from home.  Schools closed, reverting to “virtual learning”.  Gyms closed.  Restaurants closed entirely or switched to take-out or delivery only.  At the same time, life continued.

What were people doing on the highways during Coronavirus shutdowns?

The nearly 5% increase in traffic accident fatalities tracked by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came due to an increase in “risky driving behavior”.  That, according to the agency also known as the NHTSA.

“During the early months of the national public health emergency, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly. … Of the drivers who remained on the roads, some engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.”

Traffic Safety Facts, NHTSA, January 2021.

Average speeds increased on the nation’s highways between April and June, compared to the previous year, according to NHTSA statistics.  “Extreme speeds” plagued the highways more frequently.  Also, the traffic data found people involved in traffic accidents and collisions were less likely to wear seat belts.

Coronavirus Driving Habits Brought More Drug & Alcohol Use

Drug and alcohol use increased among those seriously injured or killed in car accidents during the pandemic.  A study of those killed or seriously injured in collisions looked at data from five trauma centers around the U.S.  Between mid-March 2020 and mid-July almost two-thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one of what was considered by researchers as an active drug.  Alcohol, cannabis and opioids made up the active substances found 66% more frequently in trauma centers than prior to the pandemic.

The number of those testing positive for opioids after serious or fatal car accidents nearly doubled after the Covid-19 shutdowns started in mid-March 2020.  That nearly doubling of opioid use compares to the six months prior to the lockdowns.  Positive cannabis tests among those seriously injured or killed in car accidents after the shutdowns also increased by about 50%.

Coronavirus Driving Habits: Speeding

While many stayed home during the Pandemic lock downs, others headed out onto open highways.  So, while fewer people drove, those who did took more risks, notably speeding.  According to NHTSA numbers, vehicle speeds increased 22% in metropolitan areas covered in the study.  With less traffic and open highways, “pedal-to-the-metal” driving came more easily.

“Drivers feel like they can speed and get away with it”

Jonathan Adkins, Executive Director, Governors Safety Association

Simply put, with fewer cars on the highway those behind the wheel found open roads and drove faster.  Lack of enforcement at least in the early days of the pandemic also contributed to higher speeds according to the traffic researchers.  At the same time higher speeds continued even when traffic volume picked up.

Pandemic Accidents

Contrary to what some say, accidents don’t “just happen”.  Pandemic or not, bad behavior behind the wheel, risky driving habits and sheer inattention rank high on the list of causes of car accidents.  Crash statistics during the pandemic show that speeding, drug use and alcohol factored higher than usual.  When accidents did take place, injuries were worse due to reduced seat belt use.

“There was an initial reduction in seat belt use among the seriously and fatally injured drivers and passengers at the five study sites during the first months of the public health emergency”

Traffic Safety Facts, NHTSA, January 2021.

Lower seat belt use raises two problems. First, traffic accident experts warn that those who fail to use seat belts face a higher likelihood of being ejected, thrown out of the vehicle, in a high impact crash.  Clearly that exposes accident victims to more serious injuries.  Second, research confirms that those using alcohol, marijuana or opioids tend to use seat belts less than others.

Pandemic or not, risky driving behavior causes accidents.  Reckless driving, negligence on the highways and just flat out carelessness cause accidents every day.  The bottom line on the traffic study shows that a bad time in the nation’s history saw an increase in risky driving and serious highway collisions.

When wrecks do take place, our office has found the bad driver who caused the accident often becomes defensive.  Some convert the aggression that often caused the accident into aggressive words.  Therefore, let’s look at what happens when bad drivers resort to bad words:

5 Stupid Things Bad Drivers Say After Causing an Accident

  1. “You were going too fast”  –  Those who run stop signs and red lights often blame the driver who had the right of way.  It was the other guy’s fault for going too fast, not their fault for running the traffic control.  Nearly always the facts, the points of impact and other collision facts prove this excuse wrong.
  2. “You came out of nowhere” –  The laws of physics hold that everything comes from somewhere.  As with the above statement, this fails because nothing comes out of nowhere.  Also, those claiming that a vehicle “came out of nowhere” are generally admitting that they simply weren’t looking
  3. “Your car was over the center line”  –  Unless true, this accusation most often finds itself disproven by post-accident observation.  Drivers who drift over center lines while texting or through other distracted driving often blame the non-negligent driver.  At the same time, accident investigators use facts such as skid marks, points of impact, paint transfer and other accident study to prove pre collision trajectories.
  4. “I didn’t think you were going to go that way”  –  This often comes from people who jump into intersections or rotaries thinking they can beat the other car.  Instead of stopping for a moment, actually noticing traffic, they barge forward then blame the other car that had the right of way.
  5. “You caused the accident”  –  Failing to think fast enough, this comes out of the mouth of otherwise speechless drivers.  Facts usually show the opposite.

Final Thoughts on Coronavirus Driving Habits and Other Bad Driving

Actual traffic data shows 65% of drivers treated at trauma centers during the coronavirus lockdown who were hurt in serious vehicle crashes had drugs or alcohol in their system.  Before the pandemic 50.6% tested positive with such substances.  That represents a 15 percent difference.  So, substance abuse ranks high in car accidents, pandemic or not.

Bad driving, negligent driving and careless operation threaten drivers every day.  Coronavirus driving habits caused havoc at a higher rate.  Nonetheless, accidents never “just happen”.  Someone, sometimes a combination of factors, set the scene for disaster.

The author of this article, Andrew D. Myers, practices personal injury law in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  While the first portions of the above article find their source in the cited accident statistic study, the stupid things bad drivers say after they cause an accident come from years of representing those injured in serious accidents.  The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers, in North Andover, MA and Derry, NH offer a free initial consultation in any injury case.

Model Credit: Jackie Penney


Risky driving: US Traffic deaths up despite virus lockdowns, The Washington Post, January 26, 2021.

Update to Special Reports on Traffic Safety During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Third Quarter Data, NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts, January 2021.


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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

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