By Jack Lyons
Soon after Vermont’s first wave of COVID-19 deaths subsided in May, another wave of death quickly began to climb: traffic collisions.
Crashes at one point surpassed the death toll of the coronavirus, and killed 62 people in the state in 2020, up from 47 the year before.
Vermont roads have had less traffic and fewer crashes than usual during the pandemic, but the percentage of crashes that ended in a fatality in 2020 is significantly higher than previous years, according to data from the Agency of Transportation.
The summer proved especially deadly for Vermont drivers, with 14 deaths in July alone, more than any month in the past decade.
State officials say restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 may have emboldened reckless drivers, with fewer cars on the road and minimal police presence.
“You’ve got people out on the road with very little traffic and very little enforcement going on, and what’s the temptation? Hammer down,” said Paul White, a law enforcement liaison for the Vermont State Highway Safety Office. “They’re doing all sorts of irresponsible driving behaviors that they might not do in normal traffic or when you have a greater likelihood of getting pulled over.”
It’s hard to say whether emptier roads led otherwise safe drivers to change their habits, but there was at least “a higher ratio” of risky drivers from March onward, he said.
“The risk-takers are always going to be out there,” White said, “even though some of the more cautious drivers are staying home.”
The pandemic has brought about a five-year low in car crashes, and traffic levels are about 75 percent of what they were the previous year. Levels were even lower in the spring, though traffic increased as Gov. Phil Scott loosened restrictions for restaurants and other businesses in late May.
And that’s when road deaths started spiking.
The period from Memorial Day to Labor Day — coined the “100 deadliest days” by traffic safety experts — had 40 road deaths in 2020, a steep increase from the six deaths recorded in the winter and spring. It was enough to make June to September of 2020 the deadliest four months for Vermont roads in the past decade, even as crashes and traffic remained well below normal.
The problem isn’t limited to Vermont. In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported an increase in the national traffic fatality rate, though the number of fatal crashes nationwide has decreased. In addition, White said he and his colleagues in other states have discussed the issue in their regular conversations with each other.
The timing of the spike doesn’t seem coincidental, White said, and can be tied to the state’s reopening.
“People started to get into this habit of driving inappropriately, and then things started to loosen up — so you’re introducing more traffic on the road — and people weren’t driving well,” he said.
Poor driving could also come from high stress levels, officials say, as worrisome events draw the attention of drivers away from the road. Crashes often occur when preoccupied drivers ignore a pedestrian or curve in the road they normally would have seen, a circumstance called “inattentional blindness.”
“When we’re thinking about, ‘Man, I’m losing my business,’ or ‘My mom is sick’ or ‘I don’t want my mom to be sick’ — and we’re not here to focus on the driving task, that contributes to the inattentional blindness,” said Sgt. Jay Riggen, who works in traffic safety for the Vermont State Police.
About half of the traffic fatalities this year have involved an intoxicated driver, which Riggen said is typical in Vermont. What isn’t typical, though, is that most of those individuals were under the influence of alcohol, whereas in recent years, drivers have often had drugs in their system.
The shift in which substances are causing crashes may be connected to an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, Riggen said. But with Vermont’s small numbers, it only takes a handful of fatal DUI crashes to tip the scales, making it hard to distinguish between trends and statistical abnormalities.
White said the same is true when analyzing any trend in Vermont’s fatal crash data: “When your overall numbers are so low, it doesn’t take much of a spike or much of a dip to really throw your percentages off.”
One piece of data that stands sually high number of single-fatality or single-vehicle collisions this year. That statistic might reflect the state’s order to physically distance between households.
In the effort to reduce fatal crashes, officials say they’ve lost a key tool: enforcement. Since interactions like pulling over a vehicle provide an opportunity to transmit the coronavirus, authorities across the state have been scaling back their presence on the highways.
“While we’re out there and we’re trying, we want to be careful,” Riggen said. “We don’t want to contribute to the next tragedy by infecting another member of the public who is at risk.”
In December, an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Vermont Police Academy infected almost 80 percent of the state’s new recruits.
In the absence of regular enforcement levels, state officials have turned to awareness campaigns and social media to deter reckless driving. A recent video by transportation officials, “The 12 Days of Highway Safety,” adds a whimsical twist to the popular Christmas song, featuring lyrics such as “three texts ignored” and “four snow tires installed.”
The video may be goofy, but Riggen said he hopes the overall message is not.
“(We’re) trying to help people see that this is not numbers on a spreadsheet,” he said. “These are human beings.”