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Speed remains an issue

A few of the things that we could be even a little happy about during the last four months or so seemed to revolve around our cars.

The price of gasoline, for example, fell below $2 a gallon for a fairly large part of that time, and many of us also received a temporary reduction in our insurance rates. Those changes made sense — we were driving fewer miles, which led to a reduced demand for gasoline which led the price to fall.

It followed that if we were driving less, the insurance companies were not having to guard against paying as many claims.

That should have meant those of us who still had to drive — to work, to a doctor’s appointment or to the store –should have been safer while on the road.

Well, that is not entirely accurate, at least according to numbers compiled by the National Safety Council and discussed during a panel teleconference held July 21.

Those figures showed that even though we have been driving fewer miles since things started to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the roads were a little more dangerous.

In fact, they show that the number of fatalities per million miles driven actually increased in March, April and May.

While the 1.2 deaths per million miles driven this March were just a little bit higher than the 1.07 deaths per million miles recorded in 2019, there were significant jumps in April (1.45 this year vs. 1.08 in 2019) and May (1.47 this year vs. 1.19 in May.)

The reason those numbers are higher, panel participants agreed, was speed.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic actually has exposed our national road safety culture for what it really is — deeply flawed and, unfortunately, in need of some immediate action,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the council. “During the pandemic, we took cars off the roads, but we did not reap the safety benefits we should have experienced. Instead, for every mile driven, our roads became deadlier even though they were emptier.

“Causation will be murky until the final data is calculated, but it is clear that our open roads have created somewhat of an open season on reckless driving,” she added.

Numbers from our region seem to follow the national trends. According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, as of Thursday, there had been 611 traffic deaths in the state this year, up from the 601 recorded in the comparable period in 2019.

Overall, the patrol said the number of enforcement stops for this year through Monday stood at 171,778, down from 340,393 during the comparable period in 2019. In Jefferson County this year’s 1,295 stops were down from 2,686 in 2019. This year’s total to date in Harrison County was 587, down from 1,016 in 2019; Carroll County’s 89 this year is down from 358; Columbiana County’s 1,400 is down from 2,755; and Belmont County’s 2,101 is down from 5,757.

“Speed has become a drastic problem for us,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director for the Governors Highway Safety Associations. “Folks are just getting really excited to be out on the roads, but they’re not used to seeing empty roads, and they are taking advantage of that. What happens when we speed is if we are in a crash at 85 mph or 90 mph as compared to the 70 mph we might normally be going, we probably are not going to survive that crash.”

Motorists are taking advantage of the open roads. The OHSP, for example, told Ideastream that troopers issued 1,159 citations to drivers who were going faster than 100 mph between March 24 and July 10. That was significantly higher than the 658 citations written in 2019. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported state troopers handed out 423 similar citations during a similar period this year, down from the 471 they gave out in 2019.

Where we are headed with those numbers as restrictions are eased seems to be anyone’s guess. It’s possible they will return to the pre-pandemic numbers, but there are many, many factors that enter into the equation. For example, Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety and advocacy and research for AAA, said it is possible that people will feel uncomfortable using mass transit and will end up driving more miles.

Speeding, Adkins said, always has been a concern.

“Typically and historically, speeding has been a forgotten issue with highway safety,” he said. “Congress is very good at giving us a drunk-driving program. We have a seat belt program. We have data that shows speed historically impacts about a third of all traffic crashes. Speed is a big issue, yet we’ve never given it the priority it deserves. That’s because everyone speeds. We all do it. We’re all guilty of it. And there’s never been public support for really doing anything serious about it.”

So, as tempting as it is to hit the accelerator on those open stretches of highway, it’s always good to keep in the back of your mind some advice from Nanda Srinivasan, the associate administrator for research and program development at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We want to remind everyone to always follow four key behaviors for safer driving: Obey the speed limit, wear a seat belt, stay focused on driving and drive sober.

“Open roads are no excuse to speed.”

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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