COVID Consequences: How COVID-19 has Impacted Our Roadways, Webinar Recap

As the pandemic winds down and people are returning to the roads, data shows us that increasing numbers of drivers are engaging in risky behaviors leading to an increase in crashes. The Risk Institute’s June 23 session brought together leaders in the road safety space to discuss recent trends and research and what actions are being taken to address these unsafe driving behaviors.

Speakers included:

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine 

Tom Stickrath: Director, Ohio Department of Public Safety

Michelle May: Highway Safety Program Manager, Ohio Department of Transportation

Dr. Woon Kim: Traffic Safety Senior Analyst, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Noah Budnick: Senior Director of Programs & Operations, Together for Safer Roads

Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, Ph.D.: Research Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University

Pankaj Risbood: Chief Technology Officer, Zen Drive

Dr. Morgan Wurtz, MD: Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Trauma Liaison

Kellie O’Riordan: Program Manager, AAA Traffic Safety

“We’re in an epidemic. This isn’t getting better,” said Risk Institute Executive Director Phil Renaud. We’ve seen significant challenges on the roads pre-COVID, which, in many instances, have increased throughout the past sixteen months. These include:

  • A clear increase in speed
  • A ~25% increase in road fatalities in the state of Ohio
  • An increase in aggressive behavior on our roadways
  • Decreased enforcement (in some locales)
  • A decrease in safe driving skills

These changes in driving behavior impact everyone on the roads – from novice drivers to experienced drivers, said Renaud.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, the keynote speaker and a strong advocate for making Ohio’s roads safer, opened the session with some alarming statistics: 4,600 distracted driving crashes have occurred on Ohio’s roadways this year, and the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) has issued over 7,000 distracted driving violations.

He drew the audience’s attention to OSHP’s new Distracted Driving Dashboard, a resource devoted to curbing risky behavior and distracted driving enforcement and education. The Dashboard provides a valuable and detailed real-time view of distracted driving crashes and violations across the state by date, road, and route. It also provides insight into the work that troopers around the state are engaging in to reduce the impact of distracted driving.

“It is critical that all public and private traffic safety partners collaborate and make recommendations to address behavioral and educational methods to increase traffic safety,” DeWine said.

Dom Tiberi, beloved local sports anchor and distracted driving advocate, the session’s master of ceremony, reminded attendees that car crashes are the leading killer of children in this country. Behind heart disease and cancer, car crashes are the third leading killer of adults.

“We have an epidemic,” Tiberi says, and the best way to impact that is to educate our children better. “We need to change the culture and change the dialog.” As parents, we are not off the hook; our kids grow up watching us model unsafe driving behavior, he says. “We need to set a better example.”

In recent years, Tiberi has personally spoken to over one hundred thousand young Ohioans at hundreds of high schools and counting. To highlight and inform about the distracted driving epidemic, Tiberi shares the emotional and tragic story about the loss of his daughter Maria to a car crash in 2013.

As part of Tiberi’s mission, the Maria Tiberi Foundation has partnered with Tolles Career &

Technical Center to build the Maria Tiberi Foundation Driving Simulator Lab. This first-in-the-nation lab features 25 state-of-the-art driving simulators. The simulators, built by California-based Virtual Driver Interactive, guide students through a 16 module driving simulation course that takes about 4 ½ hours to complete. The modules allow students to hone their defensive driving skills and practice real-world driving applications, such as the dangers of driving too close, how to make quick stops, and techniques for driving in hazardous weather.

Tom Stickrath, Director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety (ODPS), echoed Tiberi’s words with a sense of urgency, adding that July and August 2020 saw the highest consecutive months of fatalities on Ohio’s roads in nearly 20 years. Despite an 18% drop in traffic during the pandemic, fatal crashes were up 18%, and serious injury crashes up 3%. These tragic statistics served as a backdrop for DeWine’s creation of the Ohio Traffic Safety Council (OTSC) in September of last year.

The OTSC is a collaboration between ODPS, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Ohio Turnpike Commission, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, along with many other community traffic safety partners and advocates who are all dedicated to making Ohio’s roadways safer.

The Council serves to identify the leading causes of motor vehicle crashes, serious injuries, and fatalities on Ohio’s roadways and take action to save lives. To do this, they address the challenge using a four-pillared approach: Emergency Response, Education, Enforcement, and Engineering.

They use a data-driven approach to guide action, including:

  • Predictive modeling to assign a probability that a new driver will be involved in a crash
  • Education for schools, parents, and students in the form of specific information/data to enable drivers to focus on potentially risky target behaviors prior to testing
  • Identify general trends and address gaps in driver training schools and curriculums
  • Public awareness campaigns

Michelle May, Highway Safety Program Manager, ODOT, discussed Ohio travel and safety trends during the pandemic.

She points out that traffic deaths should have dropped during COVID due to lower volumes of traffic. And that while average urban interstate speeds are lower in 2021 than they were in 2020, they remain about five MPH higher than in 2019; people seem to be more comfortable driving at higher speeds. This, coupled with an increase in distracted driving – which has not been curbed despite ever-improving in-car safety measures (lane-keeping assist, braking assist) – adds to the growing concern for road safety.

Dr. Woon Kim, Traffic Safety Senior Analyst, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, shared data obtained from 3,000 Ohio drivers over the age of 16. The study looked at perceptions, attitudes, and engagement related to speeding, with some of the major trends being:

  • People are less likely to perceive speeding as dangerous, which affects their decision on how fast to drive; this being opposed to impaired driving, which drivers see as dangerous and are therefore less likely to engage in.
  • Consistent public awareness and education campaigns highlighting the danger of speeding and the importance of speed limit compliance are And that greater consideration of safety is needed when setting maximum speed limits.
  • Even small increases of speed (5 to 10 MPH) can affect the likelihood of severe injury and result in occupant compartment integrity being severely compromised and exponentially increase the likelihood of severe injury.

Video of a 40 MPH crash test with dummies compared to a 56 MPH crash illustrates just how dangerous speeding, even by just a few MPH, is to drivers.

Noah Budnick, Vision Zero; Together for Safer Roads (TSR), contributed to the conversation through a unique lens as he discussed Building Safety Culture in Small Fleets.

TSR is a corporate social accelerator that leverages private-sector technology, data, and expertise to prevent traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities worldwide. Purpose-driven members are active participants in their programs, which Budnick argues is imperative for success. There is no greater influence on a person’s on-the-job behavior than the organizational culture in which they are embedded, he says.

Vision Zero recognizes that small and midsize fleets are more risky than the larger fleets – which have fleet safety managers, compliance managers, training, and onboarding resources. TSR addresses this issue by focusing on leadership, training and development, and technology, operating on the understanding that data alone cannot drive positive change; it needs to be understood, interpreted, and communicated effectively.

Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University, shared research on speed and risk-taking behaviors by Ohio drivers, which demonstrated that:

  • Ohio counties with more people staying at home had lower accident rates.
  • Historically, counties with more conservative voters have lower crash rates, being more rural. Still, during the pandemic, these counties had lower stay-at-home rates, which indirectly led to higher crash rates.
  • Drunk driving is rare. Only 9% of N=1,100 young Ohio drivers reported recently drinking and Alcohol was a factor in 5% of fatal and serious (KSI) crashes among 16 to 24-year-olds from 2016-2019.
  • Whereas speeding is more common. 94% reported recent speeding of 5 MPH or more above the limit, and speeding was a factor in 32% of KSI crashes.

Shoots-Reinhard and her team made several recommendations to reduce risky driving behaviors, which included:

  • Revisiting existing laws, for example, those relating to open containers in a vehicle, and lowering speed limits.
  • High visibility enforcement (sobriety checkpoints) combined with public information campaigns.
  • Improved new driver education.

She adds that leaders in the road safety space are continuously collaborating and working on all of these issues, and more, but unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to increase road safety.

Pankaj Risbood, Chief Technology Officer, Zen Drive, shared his company mission: to make mobility safer by using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms to turn raw sensor data from cell phones into critical insights.

Risbood and his team found a strong correlation between mobility and the rates of new COVID cases: the total miles driven for personal and commercial sectors in the U.S dropped about 50%. They plateaued the week of March 23, 2020, shortly after the first stay-at-home orders were issued.

The company analyzed data from five weeks prior to the first stay-at-home orders (February 6, 2020 – March 15, 2020) and compared it with data generated over the course of the next five weeks, a time frame in which most of the lockdowns were announced (March 15, 2020 – April 19, 2020). The data indicated:

  • A 27% increase in speeding
  • A 38% increase in phone usage
  • A 25% increase in hard braking
  • A 63% increase in collisions per million miles during the pandemic as a whole

Based on their data, with the goal of improving road safety, Zen Drive recommends that state and city governments start by taking the following steps:

  • Introducing legislation that targets preventing phone usage while driving
  • Identifying what he refers to as ‘risky routes’ with big data and AI and taking action such as signage to mitigate risk
  • Providing behavioral coaching to drivers: analysis shows that feedback can reduce collision risk by 49%
  • Rewarding behavioral improvements through safety competitions
  • Using campaigns to increase awareness of the hazards of distracted driving

Dr. Morgan Wurtz, MD, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Trauma Liaison, coordinates the pediatric level one trauma center that cares for patients up to 22 years of age and typically up to 16 years of age for severe traumas.

Over the pandemic period, Wurtz reported a decrease in overall Emergency Department volume and a decrease in the number of children seen for evaluation after motor vehicle collisions. This trend is perceived to be related to, one, concerns about hospital visitors contacting COVID, and, two, children were less likely to be in motor vehicles over this period given that school, sporting events, and community activities were curtailed.

This data was found to vary depending on the location nationwide. For example, National Safety Council data indicated a 14% increase in hospital admissions for children involved in motor vehicle collisions, but the State of California saw a 50% reduction in casualties. This is perceived to relate to varying demographics as well as rules about mobility (including lockdowns), as different areas of the country saw outbreaks at different times throughout the year.

While a decrease in motor vehicle collisions affected the number of children who were seen in the ER for evaluation post vehicle collision, the numbers balanced out due to an increase in the number of penetrating injuries, burns, and critical injuries overall. Wurtz associates these numbers with increased drug and alcohol use, increased stress, increased speeding, and increased distractions on the road.

Kellie O’Riordan, AAA, Traffic Safety Program Manager, studied novice and experienced driver reactions and concerns related to driving or learning to drive during the pandemic.

Some novice drivers were unable to amass adequate practice time due to the lack of opportunities to drive alongside other drivers on the road. Others forgot what they had learned in class and had to retake driver education because of closures. When novice drivers were involved in crashes, many were found to be single-car crashes that involved speeding, overcorrection after going off the road, and distractions relating to passengers, phone use, eating, and stress.

Even experienced drivers felt like they had “forgotten how to drive,” and others shared concerns that other drivers (given heightened emotions during the pandemic) would be aggressive towards them. Interestingly, these fears led to an uptick in experienced drivers taking advantage of AAA skills assessment and training courses to better prepare themselves for returning to the roads.

In addition to these training courses, and coupled with a plethora of resources provided by ODOT, the Ohio Traffic Safety Council, and other state and local Risk Institute partners, AAA provides alternate resources for teen and novice drivers as well as senior and experienced drivers.

September 23 is The Risk Institute’s 8th annual conference, Weather and Climate Change Risk: Building Resilience for Business. The session will explore the impact weather and climate change has on business, including on supply chains, fleets, financial markets, and more. The Institute and speakers will also explore ways businesses can adopt more sustainable practices and build resiliency.

Speakers include: Jon Davis & David Shillingford, Everstream Analytics; Carter Brandon, World Resources Institute; Carsten Luetzenkirchen, DHL; Sandra Nessing & Lisa Groff, AEP; George Gonczar, Huntington National Bank; Matt Eichmann, Greif; Jim Nerger, Roanoke Insurance and more.

To register for the event, or learn more about the agenda, click here.

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