Science and Technology
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covid19 pandemic & the safety of the roads in the dc metropolitan area

Redux Extra April 3, 2021
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Conventional wisdom suggests that slowing down an economy coupled with efficient travel lockdown would bring down the number of road deaths and injuries. Indeed, crash deaths in France and Sweden reduced by 40% in March of last year, compared to the previous year. New York City, which was severely affected by COVID19, saw a reduction of 56% of crash deaths. However, DC registered in 2020 the highest traffic fatality tolls, since 2008. A closer look at the traffic data reveals that fatality rates per kilometer traveled, has increased in several states across the US. Why this has happened in a year where travel restrictions were imposed at various times throughout the year, and most importantly when most employers required their employees to work from home, thus reducing the daily commuters into DC. While it will take few more years of data and research to conclude the likely reason for this increase in traffic fatalities in several places and on DC’s roads in particular, let’s analyze what might have been the cause.

Contributing factors could have been higher speeds due to low traffic volumes, lack of enforcement, and higher proportion of pedestrians and cyclists on the road who also happen to be more vulnerable than the rest of the road users. But let us have a closer look at two other factors that may have contributed to this peak in traffic fatalities.

First, COVID-19 continues to disrupt shared modes of transportation—subways, buses, taxis, and ride sharing—as concerns about air quality and viral infections linger. A survey conducted by McKinsey in seven countries revealed that trust in public transportation and ride hailing has declined in all seven countries. Only 9% of the US responders considered public transport as safe mode of transport compared to 80% who considered private vehicles to be safe. About 36% selected regular disinfection and social distancing as measures that will increase the likelihood of choosing shared transportation types, and 42% did not suggest any measure. This survey implies that for a while, a large portion of the users of shared transportation would opt to use their private car, this will increase traffic and will result in congestion on one side (during rush hours) and more crashes on the other side (during off peak hours).

Second, several cities including DC, have witnessed an increase in the usage of electric scooters in recent years. Few companies are making those available for rent in several places throughout the cities and DC is no different. But city planners and many pedestrians have wondered how to get electric scooters off the sidewalk due to the safety risk they are posing to pedestrians. To explore how e-scooters are affecting road safety, researchers from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) interviewed more than 100 e-scooter riders whose injuries brought them to the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, between March and November 2019. Broadly speaking, the researchers found that e-scooter riders suffered injuries more frequently per mile traveled than bicyclists, but bicyclists were 3 times as likely as scooter riders to be hit by motor vehicles. In contrast, e-scooter riders were twice as likely as bicyclists to get injured because of a pothole or crack in the pavement or other infrastructure like a signpost or curb. Only about a quarter of the injured scooter riders were commuting to work. The rest were running errands or riding for fun or a social trip.

The District hopes to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024 and I believe it is an achievable goal through the adoption of Vision Zero in road safety.

Finally, I leave you with a safety message. Stay safe from the virus and stay safe on the roads.
SAID DAHDAH, PH.D. Senior Transport Specialist The World Bank

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