Talking Michigan Transportation

Why are crash deaths on the rise despite fewer vehicles on the road?

October 02, 2020 Season 2 Episode 35
Talking Michigan Transportation
Why are crash deaths on the rise despite fewer vehicles on the road?
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast, conversations about excessive speeds and more traffic deaths since the pandemic began. Despite traffic volumes still being down an average of 20 percent across the state due to the pandemic, fatal crashes are on the rise. In fact, Michigan State Police tell us that 64 more people have died on Michigan’s roads than at this time last year. 

First, Michigan State Police First Lt. Michael Shaw discusses what he is seeing in his role as the department’s public information officer in Metro Detroit. 

Then, Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), discusses the issue from a national perspective. 

Lt. Shaw says speeds soared on Michigan freeways during the earliest days of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. One person was stopped driving 180 mph on I-75 in Monroe County in April.  

There are many theories: open roads and reduced congestion, and police making fewer stops early in the outbreak to limit face-to-face contact. 

GHSA’s Adkins says traffic deaths were somewhat stable for the first six months of the year but even that is not good news given the reduction in traffic.  

GHSA issued a news release Thursday saying the data presents serious concerns. The release cites the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) in-depth analyses of highway safety data during the COVID-19 pandemic that affirms concerns voiced by GHSA in April based on trends reported in the spring by state highway safety offices. Far too many drivers saw open roads as an invitation to engage in risky behaviors like speeding, driving under the influence and driving unrestrained. GHSA’s members have daily reported speeding violations of 100 miles per hour and higher on highways and local roads throughout the country. For too long, speeding has been the forgotten traffic safety issue, even though it is a factor in nearly a third of all roadway deaths. 

Adkins also talks about flaws with setting speed limits based on the 85th percentile. In fact, a GHSA report in 2019 examining speeding-related fatalities concluded that research has shown raising speed limits to match the 85th percentile speed increases the average operating speed of the roadway, consequently increasing the 85th percentile speed.
He also offers insights on what safety messages resonate, especially with younger drivers.


Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: Hi, once again welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. Our first for the month of October in 2020, and today I’m going to be talking with a couple of people about a pretty serious issue and that's excessive speeds and the role they're playing in an increase in traffic fatalities, which is really puzzling here in Michigan and other states because traffic volumes are down an average of twenty percent after being down as much as sixty percent early in the pandemic, fewer people driving, obviously, yet we have more deaths now than we did at this point in 2019, and a lot of people are scratching their heads about that. So, first I’m going to be talking with First Lieutenant Michael Shaw of the Michigan State Police and then secondly, I’ll be talking to Jonathan Adkins who is the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association based in Washington D.C., and he'll provide a national perspective on these things. So, again, first I’ll be talking with First Lieutenant Michael Shaw.  Lieutenant Shaw, why don't we start by letting folks know what your specific roles and responsibilities are in Metro Detroit.

Lt. Michael Shaw: So, the Michigan State Police has seven different districts. My district is the second district which covers Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties, so basically southeast Michigan. I’m assigned to second district headquarters as the public information officer, so part of my responsibility is to refer or go to ongoing incidents, talk to the media, kind of let the public know exactly what's going on out there, and then, you know, the other part of it too is I have my own social media site on Twitter to educate the public about upcoming trends that we see as far as traffic goes and other events that may affect them in the Metro Detroit area.

Jeff Cranson: Well, you do a very good job both with the media and with your Twitter feed. It's very helpful and I appreciate it so—

Lt. Michael Shaw: Thank you. 

Jeff Cranson: So, talk a little bit about--I mean, you've got the three most populous counties in the state. You've got by far the busiest roads in the state, you've got the biggest media market, so you have to keep on top of a lot of things. Why do you think we're seeing this uptick in fatal crashes when traffic is down?

Lt. Michael Shaw: And that's something that, you know, it concerns us naturally because everybody figures that we're basically under a stay-at-home order from almost March till May, so we would figure that our stats would be way down and you couldn't even count this year as far as traffic stats would go, but that unfortunately isn't the case. Some of it is going back to the very beginning of basic driving skills. We used to talk education wise about, you know, distracted driving and some of the things like multitasking things that are people are doing, but now we're seeing some of the basic stuff like excessive speed, and we're not talking, you know, 10 miles over the speed limit or 15 miles over the speed limit, we're talking 143 miles an hour that a trooper got on one of our freeways. It’s just people driving way too fast above their abilities to drive. I think a lot of people don't understand that you get in a crash at that speed the chances of you having a successful outcome probably isn't there. The second thing we've seen is the lack of seat belt use. Most of our fatalities down in this area or at least, you know, the last few of them have been drivers that would have survived the crash if they would have had a seat belt on but ended up being ejected, and then that last one there is the one that gets most people in the Metro Detroit area, and that's just following too closely. We've seen cars driving underneath the back of semi-trailers. We've seen semis running into the back of cars, people driving in rush hour traffic not paying attention, or following too closely and ending up hitting the back of those cars. So, we think that's in there somewhat, and also we're seeing a lot of people that maybe think they can get away with it with the pandemic going on where people are thinking that the police might not be out there. We know we had some departments that, you know, mentioned that they weren't going to do as much traffic enforcement. So, I think a lot of the public or those people that like to drive a little bit excessive are now taking it to a new level.

Jeff Cranson: So, that's a lot, 143 miles per hour especially is eye popping, and I remember hearing about that. I think that that you're right. The theory nationally that I’ve heard is that for a while there when traffic was down so much I mean, as much as 60 percent in Michigan immediately after the stay-at-home orders and after the outbreak, people got this idea that, you know, it's the wild west in the open road, and they drove like that, and then they continued to drive like that even after traffic returned. But the seatbelt thing is really puzzling and one thing I’ve heard about that, and I know this is all just conjecture because that's all we can do, but because some people are so resistant to being told to wear masks, it's kind of provoked that libertarian spirit in people, like I’m just not going to do anything anymore, and you can't make me wear a seat belt. So, I don't know how else to explain that.

Lt. Michael Shaw: And that is the weird part for us because in Michigan we've been very fortunate, and we've had a 97, 98 compliance rate. We’ve led the nation, you know, in seat belt use and usually that is not an issue for us as far as our drivers and, you know, seatbelt compliance, but maybe that's part of it is people are getting tired of being told what to do, and they're just not going to do anything, but that seatbelt will definitely save your life for many reasons. As we come up on simple things like deer hunting season, don't veer for deer if you don't have your seatbelt on. You get in a car deer crash, the chance of being seriously injured, you know, rises. Snow is coming unfortunately, you know, you wipe out in the snow the chance of getting injured rises, you know, either from the airbag going off or you not being behind the wheel and being able to control that car. So, you may be mad that you're being told what to do so much lately, but that seatbelt, that you got to keep on all the time.

Jeff Cranson: Well, it's also an issue of caring about the other people that might be in your vehicle. I know my counterparts in Utah put together a pretty controversial PSA a few years back that made the point, you know, that the child in the backseat could be killed by you when you become a projectile because you weren't wearing a seatbelt, and I wonder if more people thought about that if that at least would get them motivated, but like you said up until now we've had very good compliance in Michigan. So, you know, it didn't seem like something we needed to keep talking about. I thought we could move on to other things. Real quickly, because you talked about cars following too closely and, you know, those of us that paid attention driver's ed remember what we were taught about, you know, the distances per 10 miles an hour and how you should estimate your distance. Do you think that, you know, is it distracted driving for in a lot of cases? Suddenly people are creeping up on somebody they didn't even realize it because they were, you know, looking at something else?

Lt. Michael Shaw: And I think that was part of it when we really started looking at it because we had trouble with, you know, following too closely. In fact, looking at some of our stats that was one of the major contributors to traffic crashes here in the district even before the pandemic starts, but now I think that it's just amplified for that very reason. Either people aren't paying attention or else, you know, it's kind of going back to the old roadhouse analogy for those old enough remember that one, you know, just be nice. People kind of have lost that in this pandemic. Where drivers aren't as courteous as they used to be, where, you know, with wanting to get over a lane somebody usually would wave you over. Now people are just driving so close to each other because either they want to suck up that space or they want to force you out of the way so they can continue on whatever their speed is going, and then some of it has got to be some of the distracted driving because we see rear end collisions in five mile an hour backed up traffic when traffic's in a queue trying to work their way through and then next, you know, the guy behind you bumps into you because, you know, their face is buried in their phone.

Jeff Cranson: So, do you think that there's a road rage element to this too? I mean, people are obviously on edge. I mean, people are stressed for a number of reasons: the economics of the pandemic and just the fear that creates stress that everybody lives with, is that part of this?

Lt. Michael Shaw: I think it is. Here in Metro Detroit since June 15 we've had 18 different, you know, freeway shootings ranging from homicides to felonious assault to non-fatal shootings. Some of those were simply because somebody was upset that somebody didn't use a turn signal or, you know, the famous they felt disrespected, and they felt that that was serious enough for them to pull out a firearm and fire rounds at another person. I think some of that kind of ties into maybe a little bit of the anti-police settlement that we're seeing out there where people are thinking, “well, I’m just going to handle this myself because the police probably aren't going to do anything about it with all the bad publicity that they're getting." So, I think there's a little bit of that too that's kind of making this perfect storm that's out there on our roadways right now because there's no reason that we should have this much higher of a fatal crash rate when you have that much less traffic on the road. So, there's got to be some other factors that go in there besides just bad driving.

Jeff Cranson: So, I know you and your colleagues struggle with these things. You guys obviously have families and, you know, children, and brothers, and sisters, and you have to deal with this time and again. How do you professionally, you know, stay engaged enough to do what you have to do but detached enough to let not let every one of these, you know, kind of get to you?

Lt. Michael Shaw: So, it's sometimes it's a little bit difficult because yeah, you get on there, you know. I’m kind of maybe at a little bit of a disadvantage because I see the bad news all the time, you know, monitoring the social media. Being involved with the media you kind of get inundated with it, so sometimes you think you're taking a couple steps forward by doing these type of podcasts or going to the media and saying, “hey, slow down, be nice, you know, let things go. You don't have to use a gun. Violence is bad.” And then you go and the next day there's another one and, you know, you kind of look at it and say “man,” or you look at some of these crashed where you go out there, one in particular that, you know, I was out on the scene with and kind of followed through was the construction worker that was, you know, struck and killed on the side of the road from the Macomb County Road Commission knowing a young man that, you know, fought through cancer four or five times who was trying to make a living, and senselessly because somebody didn't move over or pay attention, you know, lost his life on a freeway, you know. It kind of wears on you a little bit, but I think the other part that I do is, you know, hopefully by talking about it, or really stressing this stuff out, or doing this type of enforcement that we're saving a lot of other lives as well, so you got to kind of look at the positive aspect of it a little bit.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that worker death in Macomb County is just particularly disturbing because of his personal story, and I’m glad you brought that up. I’m glad you also channel some of your educational efforts toward work zone safety because, you know, those folks, you know, as we always talk about, you know, drive as if you work here. Try to imagine, you know, your workplace with cars screaming by at 80 miles per hour. It's something we can't probably talk about enough, so I appreciate your efforts there. So, later on I’m going to be talking to Jonathan Adkins who's the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. And he's got some perspective and insights about what's going on nationally that I think will, you know, complement what we talked about. But I want to thank you again for taking the time to do this, Lieutenant Shaw.

Lt. Michael Shaw: Thanks, I appreciate you having me on. Then we always stress to everybody to drive safely and make sure that you move over.

Jeff Cranson: For the second segment today, as promised, I’m going to be talking with Jonathan Adkins who is the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Administration. Jonathan, thanks for taking time to do this.

Jonathan Adkins: Sure, my pleasure.

Jeff Cranson: So, earlier I spoke to First Lieutenant Michael Shaw of the Michigan State Police who is the PIO for the busiest region Metro Detroit the three most populous counties in the state and by far the heaviest freeway use from a traffic standpoint in Michigan. And, you know, he's puzzling too about why it is— with traffic down so much—still an average of 20 across the state. We have more deaths at this point on Michigan roads than we did in 2019 at this time. I see just today as timing would have it, you guys issued a new release based on some new reports from NHTSA. So, it doesn't sound as bad nationally as what we're seeing in Michigan, but you still seem like you guys are kind of scratching your heads too about what's going on and you offer some theories. I don’t know, what are your best thoughts about this phenomenon? Why it would be?

Jonathan Adkins: Well, the national perspective is not good. Data through the first six months of 2020 indicate that deaths are down nationally two percent, and that sounds okay until you see that vehicle miles traveled are down about 16 and a half percent. So, we should have had a big, big reduction in deaths, and we are seeing some states like Michigan, Missouri, New York, and others that are actually seeing the number of deaths going up and that and that's pretty incredible. We don't, you know, it's too early to know exactly why this is happening, but we have some pretty educated guesses. We think speeding is playing a huge role in this issue. We're having reports every day from all across the country of folks getting stopped for 100 miles an hour, 120 miles an hour, just some really excessive speeding. We're also seeing, particularly in rural areas, crashes where the driver or the passenger are getting ejected from the vehicle, which suggests a lack of seat belt use. And I think the overall issue that we're seeing is really a lack of enforcement through the pandemic to now. On the one hand, it's understandable early in the pandemic there were a lot of concerns about officer safety for sure and public safety and having that interaction. And the police have also had a lot of other issues going on with rioting and civil unrest across the country, so that there's been quite a bit quite a bit going on so it's not just one factor. We're having a group of things coming together and it's pretty concerning.

Jeff Cranson: I think that, you know, anecdotally I definitely see what you're talking about I’m not on the road that much right now or as much as I used to be, but when I am I definitely see higher speeds on the freeway. I'm curious—Lieutenant Shaw and I talked about this a little bit the seatbelt thing seems really puzzling. I mean, we had achieved, you know, pretty high compliance in Michigan like in the high 90 percent range, and now they're seeing what you're talking about seeing in some other states and that's not just speeding but people not using their seat belts all of a sudden. I can't figure that out. My only theory on that is that it's got to do with the whole mask debate, and, you know, people are ticked off about being told what to do. It's kind of kicked in this like libertarian spirit like, you know, I’m just not going to do anything you told me to do. I don't have a better theory.

Jonathan Adkins: I think it's a pretty good theory, frankly. It's a reminder that a lot of us do the safe thing because we know it's the safe thing, but there are a lot of us that only do the safe thing because we fear consequence. We fear getting a ticket. We fear getting in trouble. We fear getting a fine. If folks don't think there's going to be a consequence and they can get away with it they may not be wearing their seat belts. They may say, you know, to heck with it, you're not going to tell me what to do and you can't do anything about it because you're not going to be able to stop me, so that that that's a big concern. The other thing that we don't know a lot about at this point, but we think that alcohol and drug use is probably playing some sort of a role. We know that in June, for example, the alcohol sales hit a record nationally, so you've got, you know, a period of time where people are really stressed. A lot of people have lost their jobs. There's a lot of loss and uncertainty still during the pandemic and particularly in the early stages, so we are seeing, you know, at the same time a lot more alcohol use. It doesn't mean that people are necessarily getting behind the wheel and driving, but when you start to see a lot of different factors all sort of heading in the same direction it makes you wonder.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I think you're probably right. I think that the stress plays a huge role. That's also why road rage incidents are up. So, yeah, it's probably a whole bunch of things. I do notice that, you know, one theory from an academic in Michigan who studies traffic safety was that there might even be more incidences of, you know, suicide or homicide by vehicle, again, because of that stress and because of you know people just feeling under a lot of pressure.

Jonathan Adkins: Well, at a minimum distraction, I think we're all clearly distracted thinking about the pandemic, thinking about the different stresses we may be under, and thinking about sort of a whole host of different challenges that we have now that we didn't have before the pandemic. So, you know, we see all these different factors that are at play here.

Jeff Cranson: Well, what do you think this this does to, you know, hardcore adherence to the 85th percentile if we know that people left to their own devices will not self-regulate, and, you know, that belief that traffic will flow at a at a certain rate that is deemed, you know, safe by most drivers? This is this is challenging that theory, isn't it?

Jonathan Adkins: Well, a lot of safety advocates don't take much of the 85th percentile in the first place, and  this is probably a good opportunity to really look more broadly at the issue of speed how we treat it as a culture. We all speed. We're all guilty of this isn't— this is different than alcohol use or even driver distraction. Most of us certainly know that drinking behind the wheel is bad. Most of us know that cell phone use behind the wheel is bad even if we do it, but most of the public really is comfortable with speeding. So, we need to have a much broader conversation about speeding, and certainly the 85th percentile is part of that.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I think one of my fervent hopes is that when we get to an age of truly automated and connected vehicles that a lot of those things, you know, are regulated by the technology.

Jonathan Adkins: The technology can play a big role. The Governors Highway Safety Association is a big fan of automated enforcement. Cameras don't see race, cameras don't see gender, and they also don't put officers in dangerous situations. So, technology creates a lot of problems in traffic safety thinking about driver distraction and some other things, but technology can help get us out of some of these challenges too.

Jeff Cranson: And, so, right away somebody's going to scream Big Brother. How do you respond to them?

Jonathan Adkins: Well, driving is a privilege; It's not a right. We have a responsibility to look out for ourselves and our families and other people on the road. It's a little bit, you know, a reminder that there are cameras everywhere every time we go pretty much anywhere until we get money out of the bank, back we used to go to baseball games we're always on camera. The cameras that are traffic lights they only take your picture if you commit a violation, so I don't really buy the Big Brother argument.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, when people bring that up in terms of, you know, vehicle miles traveled and what we could do to figure out where vehicles are going and people cite privacy concerns, and I think my goodness, you know, most of us carry at least one phone if not two and other devices so, you know, we're already being tracked.

Jonathan Adkins: Yeah, privacy is kind of out the door and a lot of cases, but I don't think traffic cameras are the real issue. I think it's an excuse sometimes for folks wanting to go fast and run intersections and behave aggressively and, frankly, selfishly.

Jeff Cranson: So, what do you think—one thing we wrestle with a lot here in the Office of Highway Safety Planning in Michigan, you know, has their own messaging and they're housed within the Michigan state Police, that's the way it works here. But as we talk to our counterparts there and the folks at the DOT here wrestle with is what message resonates, you know. At a Transcom event a few years back, I did a video that my daughter actually put together when she was a senior in high school asking her friends, you know, what it means to them when they see a billboard, or a DMS, or something that says, you know, don't text and drive. And, you know, two to one they basically said that doesn't really tell them anything. It's like putting a sign on a bank that says no robbers allowed, you know. So, what does alter behavior? What do you think, you know, can actually break through and make people think twice, whether it's slowing down in a work zone or not using their phone or at least not texting while they're driving I mean, any of these things?

Jonathan Adkins: Well, it's evolving a little bit, you know, before the pandemic I would have said a strong enforcement message, you know, to remind people that if they break the law they're going to get a ticket. We know that that works. Click It or Ticket has been effective, but the way we think about law enforcement in this country is certainly changing. So, there's some indications and there have been some studies as well that indicate that a softer message can be more effective for adults. A message of slow down so you get home safely to see your kids tonight can be effective. We're seeing some signs of that. For young drivers, they don't fear death, but they fear disfigurement. So, we've had some studies and some evidence that show that that fear of you may be in a traffic crash and be hurt, you may not be beautiful anymore. That can resonate, but just a simple “don't do it” message isn't going to have much impact.

Jeff Cranson: So, in their adolescent mind there really is a fate worse than death.

Jonathan Adkins: Yes, you know, not being beautiful, being disfigured in some way. We've seen that in some studies, but also in presentations with students against destructive decisions and other youth groups. There's not a fear of dying, but there is that fear of disfigurement.

Jeff Cranson: That's interesting and, you know, when you mention drive like you want to see your kids tonight, we’ve used a tagline for a while that just said “drive like you want to make it home tonight,” so I guess that all dovetails with what you're talking about in terms of software messaging. And I would think the same would be true of a message that says, you know, drive like you work here when it comes to, you know, road construction zones too.

Jonathan Adkins: Yeah, and, you know, there are conversations across the country that, you know, as work zone fatalities continue, there maybe have to be some hard decisions, you know. One thing we've learned from COVID is that sometimes you have to shut things down as hard as that is, and states may need to consider, you know, particularly in big work zone and big projects, they may have to shut the road down to keep people safe. That seems extreme on one hand but on the other hand, as we continue to continue to see these fatalities, we may not have a choice.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I mean, I know it's true in Michigan and I’m sure it's true at every DOT and really every local agency doing road projects that trying to balance, you know, that need for ongoing mobility with the need for safety in the work zone, you know, yeah, I wonder if we need to rethink that balance and sometimes there's just not going to be an opportunity to be driving, you know, alongside people working. It's just not practical.

Jonathan Adkins: It's a difficult discussion, and I’m frankly glad that I’m not in DOT, smarter people like yourself figure that one out.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah. Well, this has been really informative, Jonathan. I appreciate it, and I appreciate that you guys are keeping track of these stats and helping us, you know, figure out from state to state what might be working, and, you know, everything is derivative and we're all about borrowing ideas and figuring out who's doing something better, so you guys you know—

Jonathan Adkins: Exactly. Michigan does a lot of a lot of good things at traffic safety, and we like to share your successes so they can be duplicated in other states so keep the messaging coming please.

Jeff Cranson: Thanks again for listening to this week's edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, and I want to give a special thanks to Cory Petee, who does the sound engineering for the podcast, and to Sarah Martin, of MDOT, who does the show's intro and closing.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more by subscribing on Apple podcast.