If you feel like New Yorkers have been driving more aggressively lately, you are not alone. Data shows that drivers in the state have been crashing more often, and those accidents have been more devastating. They are also committing more serious traffic violations.
Some say this is caused by a reduction in traffic, increased speeding on less crowded roadways, and a rise in the use of drugs and alcohol. But there may be a simpler explanation. Drivers are suffering from COVID-induced stress, which is causing people to drive more aggressively.
Research has shown that by July 2020, a rising number of adults began reporting a decrease in mental health quality, including difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and stress over things such as job loss and the risk of getting sick.
It’s no secret that stress, anxiety, and anger can cause road rage. But more broadly, research shows that stress can negatively impact overall decision-making. In particular, stress can increase a person’s propensity for risk-taking.
Since the COVID lockdowns began in March 2020, the number of drivers on New York roads dropped significantly. With it fell both the number of traffic tickets and the number of traffic accidents. But while the overall number of crashes was down, the severity of those that did occur increased. According to data from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), total traffic tickets in New York State fell by 35% in 2020, while traffic accidents declined by 27%.
Among accidents resulting in injuries and death, the proportion of moderate-to-serious injuries rose from just under 18% to more than 21%. And the percentage killed also ticked up slightly.
The number of fatal accidents rose in both proportion and number. There were 881 fatal crashes in 2019 and 945 in 2020. Those crashes also killed more people: 2,064 in 2020 compared to 1,876 in 2019, a 10% increase.
To have an increase in road fatalities during a time when fewer drivers are on the road and fewer total crashes happening means that those who were on the road were taking greater risks. Speeding was the most common of those risks, as accident data shows. While total accidents decreased by 27% in 2020, as one would expect due to less road traffic, speeding-related accidents fell by just 19%. Moreover, speed as a factor increased by 38% among fatal accidents. But speed alone isn’t the reason accidents are getting more severe.
A study by INRIX found that in the first four months of COVID lockdowns, traffic was down 41% in New York over the same time in 2019, while driver speeds were up 41%. Even so, accidents fell by 57% compared to the same period in 2019. However, during the second four months of the 2020 lockdown, traffic was down 21% over the same timeframe in 2019, while speeds rose 22%. Yet accidents declined just 12% over the same period the previous year. That means there were more accidents when traffic patterns began to resemble something closer to normal, even though drivers weren’t speeding as much as they were before.
One reason for this has to do with an increase in generally aggressive driving habits and road rage. DMV data shows crashes involving road rage increased by 10% in 2020. Even worse, among accidents in which speed was a factor, aggressive driving as a secondary/contributing factor rose by 37%.
This tracks with studies of the pandemic’s impact on mental health. But more so, it explains why the latter four months of the pandemic saw more accidents per vehicle-mile, despite the decline in excessive speeding. As the pandemic wore on, stress increased, which in turn decreased overall decision-making and increased aggressive driving behavior.
What does this mean for the year ahead? As vaccination rates increase and life begins to creep back toward a new normal, one would hope that stress will decrease along with the severity of traffic accidents. Unfortunately, early data shows that, across the U.S., traffic deaths continue to be above normal.
New Yorkers have always had a reputation for being aggressive drivers, even when data shows otherwise. Now, other parts of the country share that reputation.