April 7, 2021

Fatal Car Crashes Jump During Pandemic

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Indiana saw a more than an 8 percent increase in fatal car crashes last year, despite more people staying at home, and the increase was significantly larger in Hamilton and Marion counties. That jump matches a national trend.  WFYI's Jill Sheridan spoke with reporter Ethan May, who covered this issue for the Indianapolis Star.

Jill Sheridan: It looks like I'm here in Marion County and also Hamilton County and some of the central Indiana areas that we saw a significant increase in fatal accidents in 2020. Is that right?

Ethan May: Yeah, Hamilton County actually saw their numbers double, which I actually was what tipped me off to this story. And last year, Hamilton County, so 26 people die and 24 crashes. So you know, that's significant. Marion County saw fatal crashes go up about 31 percent. These numbers are all inclusive, the city roads, interstates, those are the overall numbers.

Sheridan: You know, you touched on it. And I know that, you know, the numbers don't necessarily tell us but we know that this was directly impacted by the pandemic, is that safe to say?

May: I do think that's safe to say it's hard to say exactly what the reasons are. But generally applying this change to the pandemic would be accurate. You know, we all saw that last March, especially when the stay at home orders began. Busy roadways, suddenly became ghost towns and the simple fact is that whenever there are fewer cars on a road, people drive faster. And it's, you know, pretty easy to understand how faster speeds can turn into additional crashes and additional fatalities.

Another aspect of this is law enforcement, especially early in the pandemic, March, April, when there was a lot of uncertainty about exactly what COVID-19 was, and how dangerous that was. A lot of law enforcement, we're not pulling people over at the rates they were before, we saw a large decrease last year and the number of speeding ticket issued. So it's sort of this soup of lower traffic makes people drive faster and also fewer speeding tickets at the same time. And all of those things combined, it appears to have led to an increase in fatal crashes.

Sheridan: And also, we don't have a lot of data yet on substance abuse and alcohol increase... but some might suspect that, you know, that factor is involved here in the fatal crashes that we're seeing. And as I understand, again, the data doesn't necessarily show us how much of a factor that might be.

May: Right, of course, correlation isn't causation. But that was something that Hamilton County attributed to their increase was, you know, people went through a lot of unique stresses last year with losing jobs. And obviously, if you lost someone in your family or you yourself or sick, so that sort of thing can lead to more drinking or drug use. Obviously, those are factors that create dangers on the road.

Indiana State Police last year, cited about 4.2 percent fewer people for driving while intoxicated from 2019 to 2020. So what we don't know is how many people were driving while intoxicated last year is is it just the fact that fewer people were were out there driving while drunk because the bars were closed? Were they drinking at home? Or was the fact that they same number of people were still out there driving while intoxicated, it's just that they were being caught less?

Sheridan: The city has made moves to you know, have people drive safer, drive slower. What might some of those those moves look like in Indianapolis, what In your opinion, would help?

May: A lot of it comes down to infrastructure. Generally, the wider a road is and the less traffic is on a road, the faster people drive. So something as simple as narrowing a lane can actually cause drivers to slow down. And a lot of people don't like when lanes are removed and when streets are narrowed. And you know, sometimes we see that happen with the addition of bus only lanes like we've seen with the bus rapid transit lines in Marion County. 

Sheridan: Really interesting, important information to highlight here. Thank you so much for taking some time today.

May: Yeah, thanks for having me.

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