Despite Empty Roads, State’s Traffic Fatality Rate Doubled in April, MassDOT Says

By Lauren Bennett

With COVID-19 causing less traffic on roads across the Commonwealth, speeding and traffic fatalities have increased over the past month, MassDOT said on Monday in an online press conference.

Gov. Charlie Baker has routinely addressed residents and warned them about the dangers of speeding through empty streets.

Massachusetts typically has one of the lowest traffic fatality rates in the United States and is known for having some of the safest roads in the country, MassDOT State Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said at a virtual media availability on May 4.

“This past month,” he said, saw a “pretty disturbing trend in the way people have been driving.” He said that preliminary numbers indicate that fatalities on Massachusetts roadways have doubled for the month of April. He said that while the raw number fatalities are similar, there are only half as many drivers on the road as there normally would be.

“Congestion is not an issue for most people driving during their regular trips,” he said. “As a result, we’re seeing that the driving conditions across the board have changed. There are not a lot of people out there, but there are people out there and they’ve changed the way they’re traveling.”

Gulliver said that there were 28 deaths on highways and local roads in April. Of those deaths, 18 were vehicle operators, four were passengers, two were motorcyclists, three were pedestrians, and one was a bicyclist. He added that about a third of the fatalities were on interstate highways and about two thirds of them were on local roads, and the problem areas are not concentrated in one particular area of the state. 

“Be cautious and mindful that there are people,” Gulliver said to motorists, adding that speed and distraction are a main cause of these fatalities because roads are much more empty than usual. “We want you to be safe.”

He said that especially with kids learning at home rather than at school, they are much more likely to be out in yards playing, walking, and riding bikes, and people need to be aware that they are around. “Slow down, pay attention to your surroundings…You don’t have the road completely to yourself,” he said.

He said as a general rule, states that have more congestion tend to have less fatalities, and there are “not as many high speed crashes on our roadways due to that congestion,” but more people are speeding on local roads because cars are not backed up, and “that tends to be a dangerous situation.”

Gulliver said that MassDOT continues to work with both state and local police to identify hot spots and where more targeted enforcements are needed.

“Reduced traffic volume is no excuse for excessive speed,” Jeff Larason, Director of Highway Safety for the Executive Office of Safety and Security, said in a statement. “We’re reminding everyone to drive responsibly, wear a seat belt, and watch the road for cyclists and pedestrians.”

In April, two of the 28 deaths were in Boston, one being a bicyclist and another a vehicle operator.

“The trend that we’re seeing here in Massachusetts does not appear to be unique as far as fatalities go,” Gulliver said. “States not as congested as Massachusetts are not seeing the uptick.”

The COVID-19 crisis hit the Commonwealth very abruptly, which did not give drivers much time to adapt to less cars on the road, Gulliver said. He said that during the recession a little over 10 years ago, changes happened much more gradually and people were able to slowly get used to them.

Gulliver said that “nearly overnight,” Massachusetts saw a 50 percent decrease in volume on the state’s roads.

“This is a serious topic,” he said, and stressed that people should not “take advantage of the current level of traffic.”

He said that “the last thing we want” is for everyone to have followed all social distancing and other health safety guidelines and then have deaths on the highway.

“Highway safety, road safety is something we take really seriously at MassDOT,” Gulliver said. “We want to do everything we can to dial this back and get us back to being number one in the nation for roadway safety.”

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