The COVID-19 pandemic has, in addition to the obvious ravages caused by the novel coronavirus, affected public health in many unexpected ways.
One of the most concerning consequences has been a sharp increase in traffic violence, from pedestrian deaths to motor vehicle crashes and road rage.
When the first lockdowns began, most commuters stayed home. In cities across North America, large swaths of streets were closed to traffic to make way for an influx of pedestrians practising physical distancing. Bicycle sales soared as people embraced the quiet streets.
There were bold predictions that traffic deaths, which were already far too high, would fall sharply. Some urbanists dreamed aloud that we would finally start rethinking the design of our car-centric towns and cities.
But, after a brief respite, something strange happened. Beginning in the summer of 2020, traffic deaths soared. That trend continued through 2021 and shows no signs of slowing down as the return to “normalcy” continues.
The number of pedestrian deaths climbed to 6,721 in 2020, up from 6,412 in 2019, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. While that’s a modest increase, when you consider that the miles travelled were down sharply (by 13 per cent), that translates into a 21-per-cent increase based on vehicle miles travelled, a commonly used metric.
In addition, the GHSA only catalogues deaths on major roadways. A significant number of pedestrians are also killed in parking lots, driveways and such – about 1,500 annually.
As with COVID-19, the burden of traffic violence falls disproportionately on low-income residents and elders. They are more likely to walk, and have a greater dependence on decent pedestrian infrastructure.
The economic cost of traffic violence is around US$463-billion annually, again according to the National Safety Council. That includes property damage, medical costs, and wage and productivity losses.
Those are U.S. numbers. The trend is a bit different in Canada. In 2020, fatalities were down one per cent to 1,745; serious injuries down 12 per cent to 7,868 and; personal injuries down 28 per cent to 101,572.
However, Canadians cut back on travel far more than Americans, so the numbers are all up based on kilometres travelled. And it’s not clear what happened in 2021 when restrictions loosened.
But there is good anecdotal evidence that the trend toward more death and destruction on roads is occurring here, too. The consumer group Piétons Québec, for example, says that a decade of gains in pedestrian safety was wiped out during the pandemic.
So, what’s going on?
The short answer is that quieter roads have not made for safer roads; the result of open roads has been more speeding and reckless driving.
Three factors account for the majority of fatal motor vehicle crashes: speeding, impaired driving and a lack of seat belts. But underlying those human factors is the reality that cars (and trucks and SUVs) are designed to go fast and make cocooned drivers feel impervious to risks. Roads, too, are designed for speed, not safety.
During the pandemic, there has been less enforcement of traffic rules (not that there was much before) as police were urged to minimize unnecessary contact.
Who has not noticed a growing tendency of vehicles to blow through red lights and stop signs? Road racing seems to have become a popular pastime. Crossing streets has increasingly become a contact sport for pedestrians and cyclists.
There is also a lot of pandemic anxiety and frustration, and in many instances we’ve seen that translate into COVID rage – not just on the roads, but in restaurants, on airplanes and during many other public interactions.
It’s all part of a larger problem of fraying social norms and an embrace of selfish individualism.
And what better symbol than a big, hoarking truck? The anonymity afforded by sitting in a large metal box (often with tinted windows) is similar to the anonymity afforded by social media platforms.
Violence is up sharply in these pandemic times, from murders, to random attacks, to the gurgling anger in cyberspace. Traffic violence is part of that disturbing trend.
We have vehicles increasingly used as tools for disruption, from truck convoys to overt violence. A Boston Globe analysis found at least 139 incidents of cars driving into demonstrators between May, 2020, and September, 2021.
There is much to be done to counter these problems. But it begins with taking vehicle violence seriously as a public health issue.
We need to stop blindly worshipping at the altar of the car, and get back to the instincts we had early in the pandemic to make streets more accessible, more pleasant and safer.
It’s well past time to return urban streets to people, to build a foundation for healthy, green, liveable cities.
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