Traffic in Massachusetts is way down during the coronavirus pandemic, but the rate of fatal car crashes has roughly doubled — likely because of the more open roads.
The number of cars on major highways dropped about 50 percent in April, with much larger declines in certain areas. Yet 28 people died in car crashes in April, one more than in April 2019, according to the state Department of Transportation. With little traffic to slow drivers down, some are driving at dangerous speeds, officials said.
“That’s a really disturbing trend," said state highway administrator Jonathan Gulliver. "They’re not seeing the congestion they were used to seeing just a month and a half ago. And as a result, the driving conditions across the board have changed.”
In an online news conference Monday, Gulliver said speed and distraction were cited in many crashes. He stressed that the number of fatal crashes and their cause are preliminary, but that it is the state’s “strong suspicion” that increased speeds tied to lower congestion are playing a significant role. He also said there may have been an effect on drivers’ “psychology,” because the roads emptied out almost overnight.
“When you have the open road and you’re not used to it, you’re going to see what you can do and try to get to your destination as fast as possible,” he said.
Two people died in separate crashes on April 5. Shamara Castillo, 25, was ejected after her car flipped in Lawrence, and Stefon Thomas, 32, crashed into a tree in Randolph, possibly after swerving to avoid a mattress in the road. Two days later, a 56-year-old man from Norwood died after crashing along Interstate 95 in Sharon.
More recently, two teenagers were killed on April 23 after a pickup truck crashed in Wellesley.
The state does not yet have data on whether the number of overall traffic crashes increased or decreased over the same period; those numbers will likely come later this month.
Some road safety groups have warned that while lower traffic volumes would lead to fewer overall crashes, collisions would be more violent because of increased speed. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has made the same point in recent media briefings.
“With less traffic, what we’re starting to see is increased speed. So the crashes that do happen have been more severe,” Walsh said last week.
The issue is not specific to Massachusetts. Last month, the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national organization representing the states, cited several examples of increased speeding violations and fatal crashes.
“Many states have reported alarming speed increases, with some noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more,” the group said in a statement.
In Massachusetts, Gulliver said about two-thirds of the deaths were reported along local roads rather than state highways. The fatalities included three pedestrians and one cyclist.
Some advocates have called for communities to open more road space to pedestrians to allow for social distance while walking. Drivers must be aware of non-drivers using the road as well, said Stacey Beuttell, executive director of the pedestrian group WalkBoston.
“Empty streets are not a license to drive faster," Beuttell said in a statement. "Please consider every street a shared street and stay safe.”
The state will begin a campaign on highway messaging boards and elsewhere to urge motorists to slow down and drive safely, Gulliver said. The highway department is also coordinating with State Police for “targeted enforcement,” he said. Authorities issued 1,845 citations in April that included a speeding violation, compared to more than 14,400 in April 2019, although Registry of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Judith Reardon Riley cautioned that the 2020 data is incomplete. There were 134 violations for people traveling more than 100 m.p.h., she added, compared to 150 in April 2019.
There were traffic fatalities throughout the state in April, including two in Boston, Springfield, Townsend, Wellesley, and Westborough.
Gulliver said he does not expect highway volumes to return to normal for “quite some time.” Although some worried transit users may start driving to avoid crowds, many office workers will likely work from home for a while, he said. But there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future, he added.
“At this point, what we expect to see from traffic volumes is anybody’s guess,” he said.