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Why are there more fatal crashes when there's less traffic? Early signs point to increase in reckless driving in pandemic

  • This was the scene of a deadly crash in Mount Prospect last year.

    This was the scene of a deadly crash in Mount Prospect last year.
    Daily Herald News Service

updated: 1/21/2022 12:38 PM

It was troubling when deadly vehicle crashes rose by 16% in 2020 compared to 2019 even though COVID-19 decimated the number of cars on the roads.

Now it's a trend, according to preliminary Illinois Department of Transportation data.

Fatal crashes in Illinois spiked to 1,237 in 2021 compared with 938 in 2019, a 32% increase. And that's still with less traffic.

"I think that it is time to ring the alarm bells here," Northwestern University transportation expert Ian Savage said. "It was plausible that 2020 was an aberration. But this is persisting -- and getting worse."

Fatalities in crashes also grew -- by 34.6% in two years with 1,359 deaths in 2021 contrasted with 1,010 in 2019.

In 2020, there were 1,090 fatal crashes and 1,197 crash victims.

IDOT knows "anecdotally from law enforcement that speeding and reckless driving likely increased with deadly consequences during the pandemic and continues as more cars are on the road in Illinois," spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said, adding it will take time to analyze the data.

Where are crashes occurring in Illinois? Surprisingly, about 41% took place on city streets, followed by 26% on state and U.S. routes, and nearly 16% each on interstates and county/township roads.

With many working remotely, there's less rush-hour traffic, especially at morning peak times, said Savage, an economics professor. "Peak travel is associated with slower speeds, which tend to mitigate the consequences of collisions. If more trips are made on generally less congested roads, then any collisions will be more severe."

Veteran traffic reporter Kris Habermehl pinpointed stress as a cause.

"Whenever there is a crisis, whether it be 9/11 (or) the global pandemic, drivers will act more aggressively," he said. "Frustration and concern translate into anger, which, behind the wheel, is the setting for overly aggressive behavior and flat-out road rage.

"There are also exponentially more heavy commercial vehicles on the road, thanks to the explosion in deliveries. Combine large semi-trucks with small, aggressive cars, and bad things happen."

In 2019, U.S. driving totaled 3.3 trillion miles, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That dropped to about 2.8 trillion in 2020. This year, preliminary estimates show travel climbed back to nearly 3.1 trillion miles -- still lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Across the nation, fatal crashes are growing, Illinois State Police Sgt. Christopher Watson said.

"The consensus is distracted and drowsy driving are playing a huge role," he noted. "These are deaths that are almost always preventable."

Other causes are driving under the influence, not wearing seat belts and speeding. "Speed drastically increases the risk of injury or death in a crash," Watson said.

Sprawling population growth in the suburbs also strains local roads, said Patrick Gengler, chief deputy of the Kane County sheriff's office.

"The roads weren't designed to handle the increased traffic," Gengler explained. "At the end of the day, people have got to drive defensively, not offensively, not be in a hurry, and put the phone down."

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