It’s not like the pandemic turned everyone into a bad driver. Most of us tossed the driver’s manual long ago, as soon as we traded a learner’s permit for a license. Perhaps you remember that quaint publication from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. It’s filled with classic, laugh-out-loud lines such as, “Before crossing a bicycle lane, you must look carefully for bicyclists,” and, “A steady red circle means ‘stop.’ Do not go until the light turns green.”
I know this seems obvious. We’re famous for flouting the rules of the road. Feeble jokes about the habits of Massachusetts motorists are way older than the expired inspection sticker on a Toyota Corona. We treat crosswalks as a nuisance, “no passing” signs as an affront, and lane markers as merely conceptual. Education, threats, government-sanctioned attempts at humor — remember the hokey “Use Yah Blinkah” campaign? — none of it has made a dent in our defiance.
But during the COVID-19 lockdowns of spring 2020, with roads wide open and traffic enforcement nearly invisible, driving descended from bad to extreme. A local police chief told me that people already prone to aggressive behavior “were taking advantage of the fact that the police didn’t want to have face-to-face contact with the public” for fear of contracting the virus. The kind of drivers who, chafing at being cooped up with not-so-loved ones, got behind the wheel for “Born to Run”-style tears — ”chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line.” Even if they were just getting takeout at a Buffalo Wild Wings.
As our lives have slowly returned to something closer to normalcy, our driving has not. In a June Boston.com reader poll, 66 percent of respondents said navigating traffic is more hellish than before the pandemic. “I fear for my life every day,” said one. Another wrote, “People seem to have forgotten how to be even remotely considerate to others.”
The price for this recklessness has been steep. According to a state database, Massachusetts road accidents killed 334 people last year — that’s only three fewer than in 2019, even though traffic was down dramatically. “We were having a sharp influx of fatalities when we had less than 50 percent of the volume,” a Massachusetts Department of Transportation official told the Globe. A key reason? The drivers who were on the road were going full speed ahead — 45 percent faster last summer than in 2019, according to one study.
Alcohol and drugs may also have played a greater role as people numbed themselves to COVID bleakness. Across the United States, the statistics were similarly grim. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates there were nearly 39,000 fatalities in motor vehicle accidents in 2020, the most since 2007, and 7.2 percent more than in 2019. At the same time, data show vehicle miles traveled dropped by 13.2 percent.
This year is looking scarier. Last month, the NHTSA reported there were 20,160 traffic deaths across the United States during the first half of 2021, the largest six-month increase ever recorded by the federal government’s reporting system. And compared with 2019, speeding incidents remain higher, while seat belt use has decreased.
This means we’re still tooling around as if hardly anyone else is on the road, fueled by a false sense of invincibility. Exhibit A: red-light running. I’ll concede minor transgressions, such as backing into traffic on a main road to reverse direction. But when did blasting through a stop light become routine? An analysis from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly one-third of people admitted they plowed through a red light at least once in a given month “when they could have stopped safely.”
Traffic light creep is not new — yellow has always meant “speed up” in these parts. (So much so that some people argue sudden stops on yellow cause rear-end collisions.) But blithely ignoring — or perhaps overtly challenging — a red light is now becoming the norm, greatly upping the odds of potentially deadly “T-bone” crashes. For some, driving like a maniac has become a form of politicized individual expression, a way to exorcise the lingering frustrations of pandemic restrictions. My Civic, my choice!
Earlier this year, Governor Charlie Baker proposed legislation that would allow cities and towns to install monitoring cameras at intersections, but the measure appears to have reached a dead end on Beacon Hill. While Massachusetts stalls, cameras have for years been deployed the world over, including in about two dozen US states. Studies show cameras can save lives, though there are legitimate privacy concerns. But there’s no disagreement about the risks of ignoring a traffic signal.
After a year and a half of unchecked anxiety, what better time to ease off the white knuckle driving than during the holidays? A recent Deloitte survey found that 42 percent of Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January. Many will be in a car. Imagine if they all made it home in one piece.
Mark Pothier is a Globe editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.