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Bad COVID driving habits impact 2021 accident rates

A damaged car parked by a house in the City of Kalamazoo's Vine Neighborhood, on March 27, 2022.
Sehvilla Mann
A damaged car parked by a house in the City of Kalamazoo's Vine Neighborhood, on March 27, 2022.

Michigan drivers may have been even more accident-prone in 2021 than they were in 2020. That’s the anticipated finding of a state traffic safety report that is likely to be released this week.

Evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept many people home in 2020, had a negative effect on traffic safety. As Michigan’s Office of Highway Safety Planning gets ready to release its 2021 traffic crash report, it looks as though that trend continued in 2021.

Preliminary data shows even more crashes last year than in 2020, when road fatalities were 7.2% higher than they were 2019 — despite fewer drivers being on the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, COVID vaccines, along with new treatments, allowed many people to go back to work and made it possible for students to attend in-person classes again. Logically, more cars on the road means more car accidents, but according to Gary Bubar, a traffic safety specialist with AAA of Michigan, it isn’t as simple as that.

“During the last couple of years, where we had fewer cars on the road, the number of drivers were fewer,” said Bubar, “but those drivers that did chose to drive were willing, by their own admission, to take risks they might not otherwise have been.”

Bubar is referring to the results of a survey from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The survey found that “relatively safer drivers reduced their driving” during the pandemic and “relatively riskier drivers increased their driving.” The riskier drivers admitted they were more likely to be reckless.

Sixty percent of the 2,888 licensed drivers surveyed said they cut back on driving during the first year of the pandemic. Just over a third said their driving patterns hadn’t changed much. These two groups had a median age of about 50 and were less likely to take driving risks.

“The majority of people did what was recommended,” Bubar said. “They locked down, they stayed home. When they did go out, they kind of lumped their trips together.”

Four percent of drivers surveyed said they were driving more. These drivers were younger and a majority were male. Bubar described this group as “being the greater risk takers” who admitted they were less likely to wear a seatbelt and more likely to read, text, speed, intentionally run red lights, aggressively change lanes, and drive while drunk or high on marijuana. He said other factors, including a perception of less traffic enforcement, also encouraged risky behavior and that these drivers kept up their reckless habits in 2021 as traffic increased.

“During 2021, we took some of the habits that we may have built,” Bubar said, “Especially those who are willing to take more risk. It’s a small part of the population, but they’re a big piece of how this happened in ‘20 and ’21.”

Bubar said the upward trend in crashes is likely to reverse in 2022 as enforcement ramps back up. It may also help that safety-minded road improvements, postponed during the pandemic, are well underway and that traffic deaths are preventable.

“We do not have to accept any traffic fatalities on our roads. We don’t have to accept any serious injuries on our roads. If we work together, and we follow the rules of the road as it were, and when we’re driving, lets focus on driving. Nothing else, just driving.”

Leona Larson (Gould-McElhone) was a complaint investigator with the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department when she started producing and co-hosting Consumer Conversation with Esther Shapiro for WXYT-Radio in Detroit while freelancing at The Detroit News and other local newspapers. Leona joined WDIV-TV in Detroit as a special project's producer and later, as an investigative producer. Today, she splits her time as a general assignment reporter at WMUK and a part-time journalism instructor for the School of Communications at Western Michigan University.
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