This is not a film
Stop reckless driving, this is not Too Fast Too Furious or Mad Max. Empty roads are not a licence to speed up or drive recklessly. During the pandemic the mobility restrictions, including home lockdowns, led to a decrease in traffic volumes in cities across the globe. A pattern that all cities , no matter where they are located, have experienced. We are talking about a massive decrease in traffic of between 70% and 90% between March and May 2020. At first sight we could say: “Ok, the good thing about this is that fewer people are going to be killed by traffic accidents”. If this is your reasoning, we are sorry but you are wrong.
A year ago we analyzed in daily basics the effects of COVID on mobility across all its categories and this issue was brought up. While discussing it we started figuring out that people could be tempted to drive faster on empty roads, or with little traffic. Or that the consumption of alcohol or other drugs could increase due the fact that people would have fewer duties to perform. We even speculated that these habits might continue after lockdowns ended.
The EU Commission has published the results of a preliminary study about road safety in 2020. As they point out:
Lower traffic volumes, as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, had a clear, though unmeasurable, impact on the number of road fatalities. However, preliminary data in the US, for example, show that fatalities spiked in 2020 in spite of lower traffic volumes. Indeed, evidence in some EU countries also points to an increase in risk-taking behaviour, in particular speeding, during lockdown periods.
Maybe a difference of 10 km/h seems irrelevant. When you drive in an urban environment, on a road with a 10 km/h limit going at 40 km/h seems totally fine. But this little gap causes an increase in the chance of death which is too high. The numbers are pretty clear. An impact speed of 30 km/h corresponds to a fall height of 3.5 m, roughly equivalent to a fall from the first floor of a house. An impact at 50 km/h corresponds to a height of 9.8 meters (3rd floor) and at 70 km/h of 19.3 meters (6th floor). At under 40 km/h the probability of death is low. But if you add on just another 20 km/h, in other words, at or over 60 km/h, the probability rises to 25%.
More ironic data. A (US) government report has found that vehicle-related deaths fell 2.4% last year. But pedestrian deaths are up 50% in the past decade, and no one knows why. Crazy! If you need to keep the numbers simple this website illustrates the best way. It shows how much time is left, on average, for a driving related death to take place (it was created by the WHO). In the last year we are talking about the following numbers of deaths: car users = 392,904, cyclists = 40,646, motorcyclists = 379,356, pedestrians = 311,614. In total = 1,354,840.
To be fair we should mention that pedestrian behavior also has a significant impact on the number of accidents. Incredibly, the use of smartphones is a real problem and has become a significant factor in accidents involving pedestrians and drivers. In Spain, the DGT, the body in charge of managing national traffic, says that using a smartphone while driving increases the number of accidents by 23 times. The same organism says that in the country the use of these devices are responsible for 390 deaths, representing 20% of total deaths while driving.
Back to the EU Commision Road Safety report,
EU-wide, around 70% of road fatalities in urban areas involve vulnerable road users which includes pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists. Tackling road safety in cities is therefore a key area of focus and the Commission wants to ensure that road safety is taken into account at all stages of urban mobility planning. Road Safety will be an important element of the new Urban Mobility Initiative to be brought forward by the Commission later this year. In this regard, two European capitals, Helsinki and Oslo, achieved the milestone of zero pedestrian and cyclist deaths in 2019, citing speed reductions as essential to progress.
So, apparently speed and infrastructure have a decisive role in car accidents, with or without traffic, and the most vulnerable are pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists. In 2020, with empty roads, there was an increase in speed, as well as an increase in other users on the roads, not just cars or trucks. It seems to be necessary to rethink mobility with a deadline in mind: the end of the pandemic, with people returning to their offices and their normal life, a remaining fear of public transport and crazy traffic jams all over the world.
More and better infrastructure for personal mobility vehicles and walking. After building proper infrastructure for micromobility assets (i.e. bikes, escooter…) studies showed that accidents decreased by 90%. It is that easy. Plus, the pandemic has shown that if the city builds this infrastructure city dwellers will shift from ICE vehicles to cleaners one.
15 minute approach to city design and superblocks. In other words less space for private cars, and more for personal mobility (walking, bikes, escooter, etc) and public transit.
Remote limits for speed. This is something that municipalities (micromobility, Paris ) and MSP have been testing for the last few years. Cities have the duty to regulate traffic and make sure that their inhabitants comply. The EU have studied going even further: The European Union has agreed on new rules stating that all cars built after May 2022 and sold in the European Union will have built-in speed limiters, as well as breathalyzers that won’t allow driving if the driver is intoxicated.
Autonomous vehicles. For a zero vision death scenario AV is a key component. Human error is linked to over 90% of all fatal crashes. This is a medium-long term solution. that does not imply that previous action should be taken.