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National

Despite Reduced Traffic, Accidents Have Increased

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Work from home, stay at home, closed schools, closed theaters, houses of worship, offices and restaurants during the pandemic have made many American streets and roadways look uncluttered and empty, but reduced traffic has apparently not reduced traffic accidents - on the contrary. The National Safety Council says 42,060 people died in vehicle accidents in 2020. That is an 8% increase over the year before.

Michael Hanson joins us. He's director of the Office of Traffic Safety in Minnesota. Mr. Hanson, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL HANSON: Thank you so much for having me on your show today.

SIMON: Why hasn't less traffic led to fewer accidents?

HANSON: Well, it's a little bit of a two-edged sword because, actually, as the traffic volumes decreased, we saw a corresponding drop in the total number of crashes that were occurring. But what's most alarming is we've seen a significant, scary increase in the number of fatal and really serious injury crashes that are taking place not only in Minnesota, but in many of our other states across the country.

SIMON: What's your analysis of this so far?

HANSON: There's a lot of things at work here. We saw a 50% or 60% drop in the traffic volumes on a daily basis immediately following Governor Walz's stay-at-home orders and some of the other restrictions that kicked in. But the certain segment of the population took that extra lane space, and they used it and they continue to abuse it, quite honestly.

Going along with that, there was a misperception out there, and this continues to a certain extension today, that with all of the challenges that law enforcement faced with the COVID pandemic, that they were not taking an active role in traffic law enforcement. But nothing could be further from the truth, Scott. I talk to officers, troopers and deputies all the time out there. What they've seen is really an increase in the risk-taking behaviors that some drivers are availing themselves of out there.

SIMON: Risk-taking behaviors - any of it fueled by drinking, drugs, depression?

HANSON: There's certainly something to be said for all three of those. However, the primary driver in the increase in the severity of the crashes that we were seeing were the speed-attributed crashes. At one point in March into April in Minnesota, our speed-related fatalities were up 100% compared to what we were seeing in 2019 or even along our five-year average.

SIMON: Would it be fair to say people, including great Minnesotans, were just being more reckless?

HANSON: Yeah, I think that's exactly what we're seeing. You know, the pandemic restrictions, people's need to get out of their stay-at-home place - unfortunately, a certain percentage of drivers are taking out some of these pent-up feelings out on the road.

SIMON: What might help - just a return to normal life?

HANSON: Well, as we get closer and closer to that, we would like to think that we're starting to see drivers reengaging with safe habits, and many drivers are. But the unfortunate part is we're still seeing the extreme speeds out there. In 2020, the Minnesota State Patrol saw a 100% increase in the number of citations that they issued for drivers traveling more than 100 miles an hour. That trend has continued into 2021.

SIMON: More than 100 miles an hour - they're not running away from a bank heist they just pulled off. They're just driving more than 100 miles an hour.

HANSON: They are driving from point A to point B on freeways, on highways, on county roads and, in some cases, city streets. And as traffic volumes rebuild, the potential consequences for that are huge. And we need to solve this problem before not only Minnesota, but the rest of the country gets into our summer driving season because if these types of behaviors continue into the summer, there's going to be a lot of carnage out there and a lot of completely preventable tragedies that don't have to happen. It's a highway; it's a roadway, but it's not a racetrack.

SIMON: Michael Hanson, director of Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

HANSON: Scott, it's been my pleasure. I really enjoyed our visit today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.