Jan 11, 2023
Traffic fatalities in the United States have increased substantially in recent years. According to data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as the COVID-19 pandemic began, although vehicle miles traveled decreased by 11% across the nation, traffic deaths rose 6.8%. Overall, an estimated 38,824 people died in motor vehicle and traffic-related collisions in 2020.
Through the first nine months of 2021, that trend of increasing traffic deaths continued. Motor vehicle-related fatalities rose 12% compared with the same period in 2020, representing the largest percentage spike in the year-to-year nine-month statistics ever recorded by the NHTSA.
What’s more concerning, as NHTSA data confirms, is that these numbers represent a reversal of the decreasing trend in traffic deaths seen between 2016 and 2019. Furthermore, it’s important to note that economic recessions like the one which occurred in early 2020 typically reduce traffic fatalities.
Additionally, data provided by the National Safety Council (NSC) confirmed that for the first six months of 2021, eight states saw an increase of 30% or more in term of year-over-year motor vehicle deaths:
In California, there were an estimated 3,246 traffic deaths recorded through the first nine months of 2021. That figure represents a 17% increase from the same nine-month period in 2020, according to data provided by the NHTSA.
As traffic deaths have continued to increase dramatically through the pandemic, the American Psychological Association (APA) recently released a report detailing how psychologists are working to improve traffic safety.
Dr. David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, refers to the “four horsemen of death” when citing the primary causes for rising motor vehicle fatalities throughout the United States.
The ‘Four Horsemen of Death,’ according to Dr. Strayer, are:
These four horsemen are what Dr. Strayer refers to as the “human foibles” behind more than 90% of motor vehicle crashes. And, the APA report notes, experts say that these four categories of common car accidents can be worsened by “relentless cycles of pandemic stress.”
“People’s brains are not perceiving information and processing emotion in the way that they did prior to the pandemic,” Kira Mauseth, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Seattle University who studies disaster behavioral health, told the American Psychological Association. “People might be a little bit more impulsive, they’re a little bit less regulated, they might not be considering consequences.”
But as the APA report notes, Strayer’s four horsemen “aren’t going to disappear as pandemic stresses ease.”
“They are persistent contributors to crash deaths and injuries, and the only question is to what level they’ll continue to kill. Around the world, psychologists are working to understand who is most at risk and why, studying everything from basic perceptual processing to cognitive biases to the way the environment can make matters better (or worse),” Stephanie Pappas wrote for the APA.
Additionally, as the APA report notes, the federal government is currently funding efforts to conduct additional research into interventions against risky driving behavior.
Let’s look at each of the categories within Dr. Strayer’s four horsemen of death to better understand how they impact car accident fatalities.
– Excessive Speed: The NHTSA confirms that speed on the road is among the deadliest of the four horsemen categories that cause accidents, contributing to an estimated 11,258 vehicle-related fatalities in 2020.
Data provided by the American Automobile Association (AAA) in February 2022 found that the people who reduced their driving the most during the lockdown phase of the pandemic were disproportionately middle-age and female. Those particular demographics are considered to be a “relatively safe group of drivers,” according to the APA.
The AAA further found that the 4% of drivers who started driving more during the COVID-19 lockdown period were largely young and male (the demographic statistically most likely to engage in risky driving behavior). In addition, the AAA found that those who increased their time behind the wheel during the early pandemic were more likely than average to report recent risky driving behaviors (such as driving without a seat belt or speeding).
– Impaired Driving: NHTSA data confirms that although drunk driving has declined dramatically over the decades, it still played a role in 11,654 traffic deaths in the United States in 2020.
Furthermore, as the APA notes, researchers have found that alcohol dampens people’s reactions, such as anxiety, to unknown stressors far more than it does to known stressors.
In addition, the APA report indicates that drivers inhibited by drugs or alcohol pose a unique danger to those sharing the roadways (when compared to speeding drivers).
“Speeders tend to be high in sensation-seeking, risk-taking, disinhibition, and poor decision-making. Repeated driving while impaired (DWI) offenders are high in disinhibition and alcohol misuse. People with a history of both DWI and other reckless driving are high in substance misuse and sensation-seeking, low in agreeableness, and tend to be reward-sensitive,” the APA said.
– Fatigued Driving: The NHTSA reported 633 drowsy-driving fatalities in 2020 (however, when considering that figure, it should be noted that identifying fatigue as the primary cause of a car accident can be difficult unless the driver clearly fell asleep at the wheel).
The APA report notes that although people are aware of the dangers of driving while drowsy or fatigued, they may not always apply logic when getting behind the wheel (often out of a sense of urgency – to get to work, to run important errands, etc.).
“Research suggests that people know fatigue is bad for their driving abilities, but they don’t always respond effectively. A qualitative study of nurses who worked night shifts found most responded to drowsiness with less effective strategies, such as listening to music in the car. Few tried the more effective option of napping before leaving work,” the APA said.
– Distracted Driving: The NHTSA confirmed that distracted driving contributed to 3,142 deaths in 2020. Moreover, throughout the pandemic, the APA notes that many drivers are likely contending with “higher-than-usual levels of distraction.”
“Stress can … act indirectly on driving. For example, pandemic stress might cause poor sleep, which in turn could cause more crashes,” the APA report said.
The APA also points to in-car displays as a possible factor in distracted driving crashes.
“Users sometimes remained distracted from the road for up to 27 seconds after disengaging with speech-to-text. NHTSA guidelines state that users should not have to look away from the road for more than two seconds at a time while interacting with a car’s technology, and no more than 12 seconds in total,” the APA said.
Dr. Strayer conducted studies on distracted driving and in-car displays, and found that drivers “sometimes spent up to two minutes fiddling with things like in-car navigation systems.”
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