Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The face of dangerous driving may have changed over the course of the pandemic, according to a poll by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF.)
When public health measures were first introduced, TIRF noticed that the crash patterns were changing due to the largely empty roads during lockdowns throughout the country, said Ward Vanlaar, Chief Operating Officer with TIRF.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when the roads were empty, the total number of crashes was perhaps lower, but the number of fatalities, proportionally speaking, was actually higher,” said Vanlaar. “So that kind of indicated that the way people were behaving on the roads was different, the risk patterns that lead to those crashes, of different severities probably had changed as a result of the different world that we were living in. And so we continued to monitor that. And then already last year, we did a first poll on this issue. And then this year, we have a reaction to the more and more extensive polling, because clearly, the pandemic is not over yet.”
During polling, approximately 60% of Canadians reported not changing their behavior during the pandemic, and a further 20–30% of Canadians actually reported taking fewer risks, something that Vanlaar attributes to public awareness of the lack of Emergency and Intensive Care space in Hospitals.
However, 4–8% of Canadians, depending on the behavior in question, admit to taking more risks while driving than before.
“We think that it’s mainly people knowing that the ICUs are overwhelmed, perhaps the ER is overwhelmed. So they’re concerned about not necessarily getting the care they need, should they be in a crash. And I think that was probably the most important motivation for a fifth, almost a third of Canadians to behave more safely on the roads now, in terms of reasons why certain Canadian smaller proportions, but still large proportions. Why were they behaving more, more risky on the roads?” said Vanlaar.
“Let’s focus on excessive speeding, for example, at the beginning of the pandemic roads were almost empty. Now traffic patterns have changed. And so at the beginning of the pandemic, I guess you could say they felt invited to speed excessively, because the roads were empty. Now, that’s still very dangerous for themselves, but also for the few people who were still on the road,” said Vanlaar. “The greatest concern at that level is that he also knew from our polling that for a lot of those people, it’s become a habit and they’re not. necessarily behaving like they were before the pandemic again, they’re still behaving in this very dangerous fashion now that more people are on the road.”
In addition to this excessive speeding, meaning 20 or more kilometers over the posted speed limit, the pandemic has seen a rise in impaired and distracted driving, being that due to alcohol or drug use, or inability to focus on driving.
“It’s got a lot to do with what’s on their minds. They tell us that the main reason why they’re distracted is because they’re preoccupied with thoughts that have nothing to do with the driving task. And that’s not surprising at all, a lot of people are very stressed. And obviously, for a variety of reasons, perhaps they’re thinking about the safety of their health or their family, perhaps they have financial problems to worry about,” said Vanlaar. “So that would be a good reason for distracted driving. For alcohol impaired driving, it’s similar. Drinking has gone up during the pandemic, for a lot of people, it’s become a coping mechanism. So that would probably be the reason why they’re more inclined to drink and drive. And also, we also know from our polling that many more people are drinking alone as compared to before the pandemic, which is also not surprising because of the lockdown measures. So perhaps they don’t have a designated driver that they can rely on.”
Driving while fatigued has also seen an increase, though that may be a result of pandemic stress making it difficult for drivers to sleep, said Vanlaar, and the lowered amounts of traffic have made people consider the risks less despite the return of many cars on the roads. Vanlaar notes that while these risky behaviors decrease as drivers get older, which is consistent with pre-pandemic data, there is no longer a gap in risk-taking behavior between male and female drivers.
“What may have changed a little bit is the profiles of the risk takers, perhaps we need to do a better job at targeting the different groups that are now taking more risks than before. Because with all those changes, it’s possible that risk-takers from before are actually now more safe, because they’re concerned about getting into a hospital if they are in a crash,” said Vanlaar. “But there might also be newcomers, like people who weren’t taking risk risks before who now are because of stress or because of a lack of sleep or so the risk profiles of risk takers might have changed a bit.”
“We really need to continuously educate the public, and combine that with quick enforcement. There’s no one like there’s no silver bullet for safety, there’s always different things that you have to continue to do,” Said Vanlaar. “Campaigns, education, enforcement, new technologies. And so even though our world has changed with the pandemic, what has not changed is the fact that we have to capitalize on a multi-faceted approach. Essentially, what we need to make the public understand is that even with the pandemic, the laws of physics don’t change.”