MDOT Reports Road Traffic Significantly Down, But Fatalities Up

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By Doug Marrin

Fatal crashes on Michigan roads in 2020 surpassed 2019 fatalities despite significantly lower traffic volumes due to the pandemic safety restrictions.

In the Michigan Department of Transportation’s January 13 podcast of “Talking Michigan Transportation,” host Jeff Cranson spoke with Michigan State Police Lt. DuWayne Robinson and Michigan State University’s Dr. Peter Savolainen on the increase in road fatalities during the pandemic.

The Michigan Department of Transportation reports that, “Preliminary numbers indicate 1,032 people died from crashes on Michigan roads in 2020, while the number was 985 in 2019. This, despite traffic volumes being down as much as 60 percent in the weeks immediately following stay-home advisories from the outbreak and remaining down around 20 percent through the rest of the year.”

Fewer vehicles and reduced traffic congestion lead experts in law enforcement and transportation science to speculate that open roads invite higher speeds, which result in deadlier crashes.

Lt. DuWayne Robinson says that right from the start of the safety restrictions, “commuters all of a sudden had an open highway. They didn't have the traffic jams, and they didn't see a lot of police presence, or at least they thought the police presence had kind of slowed down. They took advantage of that and put their foot on the pedal and pushed it.”

And that’s a significant problem. “Everyone knows the faster you go, you know, when you crash your likelihood of a serious injury or death goes up exponentially,” he adds.

In December, Lt. Robinson states that MSP officers wrote 69 percent more tickets for excessive speed, which is defined as 25 mph or more over the limit.

“Michigan State Police’s goal when we pull cars over for whatever traffic violation first and foremost is to educate and to redirect, so we have been doing a lot of educating,” says Lt. Robinson. “We are handing out tickets when necessary, but our ultimate goal is to just educate the public on the importance of following the traffic laws, including speed laws, so that everyone can get to their destination safe, and so that you don't cause a crash that killed someone else’s family, or send someone else’s loved one to the hospital.”

Another reason MSP troopers prefer education over punishment when possible is the financial hit a ticket can create. “We don't want to hand out $125 tickets, you know, especially now,” says Lt. Robinson. “People are just trying to live day to day, you know, with their bills and groceries and just putting gas in the car. So, the last thing we want to do is hand out a ticket, a fine and cost, to put a burden on people financially.”

So then, how do we get people to slow down? How do we get motorists to modify their dangerous driving behavior? As Dr. Peter Savolainen, a Michigan State University professor and expert in traffic safety and traffic operations, attests, it is a perplexing question.

“That's a great question, and that's kind of the million-dollar question that's been facing the engineering and enforcement and education, the whole broader safety community over time is that driver behavior is inherently difficult for us to change,” says Savolainen.

When considering all the factors that prompt people to drive faster—clear roads, higher speed limits, vehicles that ride smoother, enjoyment factor, enhanced safety features, etc.—the mix of causes makes it so there is no single solution to the problem, at least until the human can be taken out of the equation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nationwide, vehicle miles dropped an unprecedented 264.2 billion miles during the first half of 2020 for a 17 percent drop over the previous year. However, crashes only fell 2 percent, and the rate of fatalities rose 18 percent.

As the engineers continue to work on the problem, experts and law enforcement alike appeal to drivers to take individual responsibility and drive safely at speeds within the posted limits.

The entire podcast can be found at https://www.buzzsprout.com/1374205

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