Talking Michigan Transportation

Pandemic brought more severe crashes, a decline in seat belt use, and a disproportionate toll on Black and indigenous people

June 25, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 61
Talking Michigan Transportation
Pandemic brought more severe crashes, a decline in seat belt use, and a disproportionate toll on Black and indigenous people
Show Notes Transcript

This week, a discussion about more evidence that the severity of highway crashes increased during the pandemic, seat belt use declined, and the number of Black people killed in crashes rose by 23 percent.  

First, Peter Savolainen, Michigan State University Foundation professor of civil and environmental engineering and an extensive researcher on road user behavior, joins the conversation to share his perspective on why drivers took more risks.  

Savolainen observes that speeds tend to be higher when there are fewer vehicles on the roads, leading to reduced congestion, and that the data also underscores the difference in the population driving during the pandemic.  

Later, Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), talks about his group’s advocacy on the topic and what can be done. 

The conversation also touches on the 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. 

Adkins talks about the need for more focus on design that accommodates co-existence for all users, including drivers of vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. As the GHSA noted, pedestrian deaths soared during the pandemic despite the decline in vehicles on the roads. 

He also discusses the research showing the increase in minorities dying in car crashes and how that needs to be part of broader equity discussions.

Photo courtesy of the Michigan State Police Seventh District’s Twitter page
@MSPNorthernMI. It shows the aftermath of a vehicle from a crash on US-131 in Wexford County in May 2021. 


Jeff Cranson: Hello, this is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson, director of communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation.


Cranson: This week we're focusing again on the disturbing trend that began with the first pandemic lockdowns in spring of 2020 and continued into 2021, fewer vehicles on the road more, people dying in crashes. We've talked about this before, and some news outlets have touched on the topic. But we have only theories about the reasons. We don't know the whys. We also heard, anecdotally, from our colleagues with the Michigan State Police, that seat belt use tapered off during the pandemic. And now we have statistics for 2020 that underscore that. So, our conversation begins this week with Dr. Peter Savolainen who is a Michigan State University Foundation professor of civil and environmental engineering. And later, we'll be talking with Jonathan Atkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington D.C., and he'll offer a national perspective. So, once again, as promised, I'm with Dr. Peter Savolainen from Michigan State University. He is the Foundation professor of civil and environmental engineering. And his research examines the fundamental nature of road user behavior and how traffic, safety, and operations are influenced by behavior in consideration of roadway and traffic characteristics. So, I think his perspective is especially important as we try to find out what's been going on, really, since the pandemic first took hold in the spring of 2020. And we saw a big reduction in vehicles on the road early on, yet we saw a spike in crash deaths. We talked about this before. Do you have any particular theories on this?

Dr. Peter Savolainen: Yeah, thanks, Jeff. So, I guess from a big picture perspective, when we examine how frequently traffic crashes occur, generally speaking, the number of crashes is a function of how much people are driving. So, I think at the onset of the pandemic, we had speculated that crashes and injuries and fatalities resulting from those crashes would decline. Now, we did tend to see some declines in overall crashes, which were somewhat in line with the reduction in travel. But we actually saw increases in the most severe, particularly fatal crashes, so that was really interesting. And I think part of that there's a few different factors that are potentially at play here. One of those that has been widely speculated on, and there's research now that's starting to catch up to try to support that, is that speeds are higher due to the fact that there are fewer vehicles on the road. So, when crashes do occur, the results tend to be more severe just given the underlying physics that are involved. So, I think that's generally supported when we look at the available data. Now, interestingly, we're currently doing an evaluation of changes in travel speeds that have occurred since the speed limit increases went into effect back in 2017. And when we look at those data, and this would be vehicles that are free to travel as fast as they would like under uncongested conditions, there really isn't much of any change between 2018, 2019, and 2020, generally speaking. But when we get into the slightly more congested areas and we get into more urban environments, as an example, I think that's where we're going to start to see some of the bigger differences. So, particularly, these higher speeds as you get into conditions that were, you know, somewhat congested but not as congested as they were previously, I think that's definitely something that's playing a role here. Now, beyond that, and this is where it becomes somewhat more difficult for us to measure, is that the driving population was probably quite a bit different, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic, than we would see in in normal pre-pandemic years. So, to that end, as an example, the people that would tend to travel most frequently would be those who were working in essential jobs or were conducting trips to establishments for some of those essential purposes like grocery stores, you know, medical trips, things of that nature. But if you look at that broad cross section it definitely is different in various respects from, you know, normal conditions. And I think that the subset we're particularly interested in there would be the highest risk drivers. And, by highest risk, we're thinking about things like those who tend to drive excessively fast, those who tend to drink and drive, those who drive unbelted and engage in other types of unsafe behaviors. Now, I would suspect that those same individuals would also be less likely to maintain social distancing and stay-at-home orders, as an example. So, I think you probably, if you were to examine it in great detail, would see a higher risk subset of drivers, in general, which is probably also playing a role. But it's a bit more challenging for us to get detailed data there because the information we have on how many vehicles are using the roadways is obtained from sensors, and we really don't have a good sense as to the constituency of the driving population, ultimately.

Cranson: But you do have a feel for that age and gender, I guess, demographic for the high-risk drivers that you're talking about, I mean, even pre-pandemic, right?

Savolainen: Yes, certainly. So, there are ways we can get into some of those subsets. And when we look at some of the information that's recorded on the police crash report and things of that nature, I think we'll be able to start to dig into some of these issues in much greater detail. So, to that end, I just recently—we now have access to complete crash data from calendar year 2020. So, among the other delays that were introduced by the pandemic, it took a little bit of time to get all of the crash data processed. So, we're in the early stages of comparing 2020 profiles to some of the preceding years, and I’m expecting we'll see some very interesting results there. Now, unfortunately, like I said, we just received access to those data, so it'll probably be at least a little while until we start to see some rigorous analyses there. But I think, just at a very high level if you look at some of the general trends, you know, there are things, like seat belt use is the lowest that it's been among crash-involved occupants in several years now. So, that gets back to my preceding points about just, you know, the nature of the people who were driving more or less frequently during the pandemic. So, there's been other research that's shown, you know, somewhat disproportionate impacts in terms of crashes, injuries, and fatalities among certain subsets of the driving population. So, in urban areas, particularly areas that have lower income and other socioeconomic differences, you know, that's been an area where there have been some upward trends that are more pronounced than otherwise. If you look just generally in terms of how the nature of travel changed over the course of the pandemic, you know, looking at urban versus rural, looking at other nuances, you know, things—I’ll try not to get political, but if we look at states that have different forms of, you know, stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, we definitely saw differences in terms of the impacts of those government orders on travel. Then from that, I suspect we'll also see some differences in terms of the crash trends across those states. And I would be curious to see what lessons we learned from that because, certainly, over time, I think regardless of where we look geographically, there was so much that people could take generally. Then we started reverting back to our travel behavior, and that was true even, you know, three to six months into the pandemic. So, I think as we look at trends over the course of the pandemic, I think we'll see much different trends, say, over the first three months to the next three months or, you know, running that all the way through present day. Sorry, I cut you off there, Jeff.

Cranson: No, that's fine. That will be interesting when we can see it, you know, sliced up that way. But I think since you touched on seat belts, that's one of the things I wanted to talk about. We were off, I think, seven or eight percent in terms of the fatal crashes where people were wearing seat belts between the previous year and in 2020. I understand that you don't want this to become a political discussion, but what is your theory as to why that would be?

Savolainen: So, again, I think at a high level my first guess would be simply we're looking at different subsets of drivers who are constituting a larger share of the total travel. So, I think the people that traveled the least during the pandemic were likely those people who generally tended to be most risk averse. So, they would tend to drive more cautiously as compared to our quote-unquote ‘average driver.’ Then, in contrast, the people that would tend to exhibit, you know, lesser degrees of concern, from a risk standpoint, might not have changed their travel behavior much, if at all. So, I think that will help to explain some of that, I suspect. But, you know, really, like I said, it's difficult until we really get into the data to truly understand what's happening there. But that would be my guess based upon a number of other studies that have been conducted over time that tend to consistently show that the people who tend to drive unbelted will engage in some of these other unsafe behaviors as well. So, you know, by and large, for a crash to occur it's not just one circumstance, it's a combination of circumstances that lead to that crash occurring. So, you know, between the lower traffic volumes, the higher speeds, and then, potentially, a less risk-averse subset of drivers, I think it's really the combination of all those different factors that have led to some of the trends that we've seen in 2020. Unfortunately, it looks like we're tracking in the same general direction in 2021. So, even as travel levels are continuing to rebound, I think we're still seeing some elevated risks for serious and fatal injuries based on the preliminary 2021 data I’ve seen at this point.

Cranson: Well, it's anecdotal, obviously, but I don't know what you're seeing on the roads, but I feel like I’m seeing, on the freeways especially, higher speeds than there were pre-pandemic, you know, even now, as traffic volumes return to what they were.

Savolainen: Yeah, I guess that's probably true if we look at Michigan as compared to other states. I think we tend to see, you know, higher speeds, relatively speaking, and that's a function of a wide variety of different factors, I think. But, like I said, we've at least looked at some of the data where those speed limit increases have occurred, and we haven't seen as large of an increase there. Now, the area that's missed as a part of those studies are some of the denser urban areas, which is where I suspect those speeds would have went upwards by a greater amount simply because that's where we'd probably see the largest reductions in travel. As a consequence, you'd see higher than typical speeds, particularly if you're looking at, you know, the larger metropolitan areas around Detroit, Grand Rapids some of the other larger cities where you do have some freeways that are 55 or even 70 miles per hour, where speeds tended to be lower due to congestion. When that congestion was removed, I think speeds went up. Then, I mean, again, we're largely speculating here, but it's possible that just some of those higher speeds were then retained moving forward even as traffic starts to return closer to its normal levels.

Cranson: I think that's probably true. You probably saw yesterday, also, that the Washington Post had a story about a study showing that, you know, Black residents were more likely to die in crashes during that period. And I think that fits with the other things that you have said about the urban areas and the people who probably needed to be on the road during the pandemic. But, I mean, should this be an ‘all hands on deck’ warning to all the various traffic safety advocacy agencies that are out there about education and what they should be doing to talk about, you know, speeds and seat belts and all these things? I mean, it just seems like this is crying out for some attention.

Savolainen: Yeah, and I think to that point, Jeff, there has been you know a huge amount of discussion nationally in terms of trying to understand the nature of these increases. Again, everybody keeps talking about speed, and I think that certainly plays a part in it. But, in addition to that, I think some of the other high-risk behaviors, to my proceeding point, we've done regular studies on seat belt use as well as distracted driving and cell phone use, so those areas, you know, they've somewhat tapered off, I think. For example, we already talked about how seat belt rates had gone down. Cell phone use rates have remained relatively stable, and we might have even seen some increases in some areas there as well. So, I think a lot of people are driving or behaving as they would normally but they, I guess, have been somewhat less risk averse, I guess to that same point. So, as we talk about some of those communities that have been particularly affected, again, I think some of that is due to just differences in terms of who has had to travel as a consequence. So, some of those groups that were cited, and I know the study that you're referring to specifically has shown that there's some African American populations that have seen a disproportionate share of the increase in fatalities. Native Americans and some other areas have also been affected for some different reasons there. Again, a lot of that, I think, just relates to the reasons why people travel, and then there's a whole lot of information that's kind of correlated, you know, with some of those regional factors and the socioeconomic conditions. So, you know, it's tough to say that it's any one thing specifically. Now, as we look at solutions, I know nationally there's been a lot of talk about these same issues. But we've been talking about these same issues for years now. It's speeds, it's alcohol use, it's distracted driving, and all of these are just underlying problems with driver behavior that have been increasingly difficult to try to address. I think, you know, that's true in the U.S. and then also nationally and internationally as well. There's certain groups of drivers that have just been hard to reach, and the safety message hasn't really resonated with those communities per se. So, I think that's one of the really big challenges because there's, you know, some things we can do from an engineering perspective in trying to make the roadway environment safer, trying to minimize the potential for crashes, but, ultimately, nearly all of these crashes are occurring for one reason or another due to some type of error on the part of the drivers. And those errors, you know, become more problematic at higher speed and when drivers are distracted. So, if you've got an idea for that golden bullet or that silver bullet that will help to address these issues, I’d very much appreciate that. But it's really this small subset of drivers, I think, that are disproportionately represented, particularly in the fatal crashes, that we've really been trying to hit with some of these behaviorally focused campaigns, enforcement campaigns, etc. over the past, you know, decades now at this point.

Cranson: Well, it's not a silver bullet, but I think a very good start is framing these as crashes, which you obviously are, and putting the focus on driver behavior and drivers making mistakes because that's clearly what this is all about. They're not accidents. They're not things that just happen. So, talk a little bit because you mentioned distracted driving and, you know, we have to believe that hands-free use of cell phones has gone up as more and more cars are equipped with that and the technology becomes more readily available. Do you have any research or anything that has helped you draw conclusions about whether or not you are less distracted if you're using a hands-free device, if you're using Bluetooth through your car as opposed to, you know, holding on to the phone?

Savolainen: So, if we look generally at the research on driver behavior there's three types, or classes, of distractions that are particular concern to us. One of those would be a manual distraction so something that requires you to take your hands off of the steering wheel and that could be, you know, using a handheld cell phone, or tuning your car stereo, or whatever the case may be. Secondly, the visual distraction, so anything that's requiring you to take your attention off of the driving environment that would be, you know, looking at objects inside or outside of the vehicle but not directly in front of you in the roadway. And then thirdly, and a particular concern across the board, is any type of cognitive distraction, so if you're thinking about anything other than the driving test, that's also taking your attention away. So, as we look at hands-free versus handheld cell phone use, you know, we do potentially do away with the manual distraction there, to a degree. Now, you may have to push a button in order to accept or dial the call in some of these instances, but you're at least still keeping your eyes on the road, but that cognitive distraction is still present. So, if you look at the literature, we might see somewhat of a lesser risk in hands-free versus handheld cell phone use. But it's certainly not as if you're driving as normal there because you're not paying your full attention towards the primary driving task. I think if you look at the general statistics comparing states that have different levels of restrictions on phone use, we hadn't seen quite the decline we would hope when you look at bans on handheld phone use. So, I think hands-free is probably better, but it's certainly not equivalent to not being distracted by the cell phone. More broadly than that, we've got some ongoing research that's looked at other types of distractions and just simple things like talking to a passenger in your vehicle are things that we do regularly, you know, similar, in many respects, to talking on the cell phone that also takes attention away from the driving task. We have seen increases in crash risk under those more subtle types of distractions as well. So, I think, you know, we keep talking about how self-driving vehicles are going to solve a lot of these problems, potentially, but in the near term, you know, this is a problem we'll continue to have to address is how to help to minimize the frequency with which drivers engage in these types of distractions. Again, that's been a real challenge because when we look at crashing or near crash events we see, you know, upwards of 60 percent of those drivers are involved in some type of distraction, not necessarily phone use but there's something, not just the driving task. I mean, that's natural because if we think about the driving task, it can be somewhat monotonous. It's unreasonable to expect that it would have our entire focus 100% of the time that we're driving. But I think as we look at the challenges that are present in some of these different environments, there are circumstances where those distractions are going to be more severe from a safety standpoint. That gets back to where we started this discussion when we talk about higher speeds and some of these other differences that have emerged over the course of the pandemic as well, so—

Cranson: Yeah, well, you hit on a key point there. And I think that eventually all the people that are frightened now of the automated technology, you know, the incremental gains that we've already made with, you know, auto braking and lane assist and all those things. One at a time, I think, people are accepting of those, but then when you say, ‘We're going to put all that together and your car is going to be fully automated,’ then they think, ‘Oh no, I’m not ready for that.’ So, I think it's going to happen, and people aren't going to realize how it kind of crept up on them, but it is a good thing. Sorry, but the computer is a better driver than you are. That's just a fact.

Savolainen: Yeah, that's certainly true. We've got some ongoing work, actually, that's evaluating some of those technologies like automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control is one that I love, personally.

Cranson: Yeah, me, too.

Savolainen: It's just amazing how much that technology has advanced over the past few years. So, you know, a lot of this is gradual integration into the vehicle fleet. We're talking decades, not just years here, to get to a real saturation point there. But I’m really interested to see what happens in the near term because I think if we're to think of a silver bullet, I think everyone thinks that self-driving vehicles maybe it. But there are, you know, a myriad of political, social, privacy related challenges that we need to overcome. Even some of these lower-level driver assistance features, I think, could potentially have some really big impacts in trying to address some of the issues we're talking about here today.

Cranson: Well, the bottom line is, and I know this is said a lot, almost to the point that it's become cliché, but if we accept 35,000 to 40,000 deaths on our roads every year and if we had that many deaths, 100, 200 at a time, in air traffic crashes that would not be acceptable. We have to try to square that, I think.

Savolainen: Yeah, and I guess continuing on the discussion of self-driving vehicles, you know, you see one fatality in driving a self-driving vehicle and that's in the news for days, if not weeks. But we have hundreds that are losing their lives on a, you know, daily or weekly basis here, and—

Cranson: And almost every time there was a crash involving a self-driving vehicle it turned out that it was the driven vehicle that was the cause of the crash.

Savolainen: Yeah, that's true. If you look at the rates of crash involvement and crashes that are the fault all of the self-driving vehicle, those rates are much, much, much lower. But crashes involving other, oftentimes less patient, human drivers and that gets back to some of the practical issues. Those self-driving vehicles are typically driving the speed limit and engaging in other, more safe driving practices and in part because of liability concerns. But I think this kind of circles back again to those more aggressive drivers who tend to be more likely to be crash involved. They don't have the patience to wait for those self-driving vehicles. So, I think we're probably talking a few years down the road here now, Jeff, but I’d be really interested when we see a fairly large mix of these self-driving vehicles to see how these other drivers tend to adapt, so—

Cranson: Yes, it will be very interesting to watch. Well, thank you again, Peter, for taking the time to do this, and I’m sure we'll be talking about it again in the future because it's a really important topic.

Savolainen: All right. Thank you very much, Jeff.

Cranson: Okay, we're back. As promised, we have Jonathan Adkins, who is the executive director of the Governor's Highway Safety Association based in Washington. Jonathan, first of all, thanks for being a repeat guest on the podcast. I appreciate it.

Jonathan Adkins: Repeat offender. Thank you.

Cranson: Repeat offender, that's right. So, I talked earlier with Peter Savolainen, who is a prof of civil engineering at Michigan State University and studies driver behavior and traffic safety. And he's one of our state's foremost experts. As you would guess, he's kind of scratching his head and disturbed about the trends that we're seeing here and elsewhere in the country. You and I last talked about this a few months back. With some time to absorb more and look at more research, I mean, what do you think is the reason? Is it as simple as fewer drivers on the road, so people started driving faster and they just kept driving faster? What do you account the spike in crash deaths—not spiking crashes—but crash deaths? What would you blame that on?

Adkins: With traffic Safety, unfortunately, it's never just one factor, but we think speed is certainly a big factor. We now have preliminary data from the full year of 2020 and overall fatalities are up seven percent. That's not a rate, Jeff, that's actual deaths. So, to think about that, we had so few people on the roads. Many of us were privileged and able to work from home and stay home for much of 2020, yet overall traffic deaths are up, and they're up significantly. Speeding related deaths are up, according to the federal government, about 11%. We think that's probably an underestimate. When officers investigate crashes, they don't necessarily always attribute them to speed. They may be attributed to other things. So, if the federal government data says it's up 11%, speeding related crashes, it’s probably up a lot more than that. Unfortunately, we're hearing from Governors Highway Safety Offices that 2021, so far, hasn't been any better. So, this isn't just a blip of a few months. This is, you know, we're starting to talk about, really, a year and a half now of crashes spiking. So, it's pretty concerning.

Cranson: So, it kind of created a habit is what it sounds like. People got used to driving fast when the roads were open, and even though the traffic is back and we're seeing congestion again, people are still driving fast.

Adkins: They got used to driving fast, and they also started to notice that, Oh, wow! I can go above the speed limit and I can get away with it.’ And I guess people are unfortunately correct. Early on in the pandemic, law enforcement was understandably hesitant to make stops because of COVID concerns. You compound that with the national discussion we're having about the role of law enforcement and traffic safety and public safety, and we're seeing a lot less stops across the country. So, the public is able to get away with speeding. And we're not talking about, you know, going 27 in a 25 mile an hour speed limit. We're talking about, you know, a big interstate speed of sometimes 90, 100 miles an hour. We had one in Missouri that was 140 miles an hour. If you're in a crash and you're driving 90, 100 miles an hour, you're not going to survive. I don't care what kind of vehicle you have.

Cranson: When you think about the advocacy and what you do and what your organization does beyond enforcement, which you only have so much control over, you can advocate for better enforcement, you know, more targeted enforcement. Is it really about education? I guess, how challenging is that?

Adkins: It's more than education. Engineering has to play a key role, particularly in urban and suburban areas. Our roads are built for speed. They're not built for safety. We have a lot more pedestrians out. We have a lot more bicyclists out. So, engineering is really at the top of the list of solutions, but I don't want to gloss over enforcement. Enforcement is one of the most effective things that we can do to address driver behavior. If we’re drivers and we think we might get a ticket that slows us down. And if we do get a ticket, you know, what happens? We go on Facebook and Twitter and tell all of our friends and neighbors, ‘Man, I just got a ticket.’ Somebody says, ‘Where was it?’ ‘Oh, okay, I’m going to slow down there. Thank you for the alert.’ Enforcement isn't about just gotcha and giving people tickets. It's about changing behavior. Click It or Ticket is really one of the most successful public health programs in our country's history. So, these calls to move away from enforcement really concern the Governors Highway Safety Association because when we defund the police, we're really defunding traffic safety and making our roads less safe.

Cranson: So, since you mentioned Click It or Ticket, the Michigan stats are in and I’m guessing this is probably going to be mirrored in other states. It looks like seat belt usage, at least according to what they tracked on fatal crashes and the number of people who were wearing seat belts that were involved in fatal crashes, was down 78% in Michigan last year.

Adkins: I hope that's a blip. But we are hearing it in other states, perhaps during the pandemic, people had other things on their mind. Again, they thought they weren't going to be stopped and they weren't going to get a ticket. I’m hoping long term that, you know, seat belt use will remain high. We've had about 90% of the country regularly buckling up. That's been tremendously successful, and, you know, a seat belt continues to be your best defense against a drunk driver or an aggressive driver. So, I’m hopeful that we're going to see some better numbers coming out around seat belt use in the near future.

Cranson: My theory on that, and I think last year when we talked and I spoke with you and some troopers, is that part of that was just a reaction to all the various executive orders and people just being tired of being told what to do. The same people that said, you know, ‘No way you're going to make me wear a mask,’ suddenly decided, ‘No way you're going to make me wear a seat belt.’ Dr. Savolainen at Michigan State theorized that it probably was kind of a self-selecting group. The people who still had to be on the road because they were essential workers and for other reasons and because they were willing to go out and do things even when, you know, we were told not to would also have been the type of people who weren't wearing seat belts. So, it might not have been that more people weren't wearing them, but they were just the people on the roads.

Adkins: It sounds very logical, and it probably also applies to speeding. Risk takers were out and about. Some of us were not listening to that to the guidance. But, you know, I do see drivers, particularly during the height of the pandemic, that may have their mask on in their vehicle but driving very quickly. So, we've got a lot of work to do here. You think how ironic, and how bitterly ironic, it is to have done all the right things, to have survived COVID, and then as soon as you get back to work, as soon as you start to go visit family, you get in a traffic crash and you get injured, or worse, die. We don't want to, you know, just as we start to have some positive momentum in this country having traffic crashes go up significantly. And we're talking about 40,000 people dying every year. It’s really significant. We need this same level of energy and commitment that we've had to address COVID to address traffic crashes because 40,000 of our friends and neighbors continue to die every year. We find that unacceptable.

Cranson: Well, yeah, and if we had 400, 100 passenger airliners go down they would be huge stories, each of them. So, I wonder if some of this is the creativity of the media to put that 40,000 number in context and perspective. And I say this as a person who spent most of my career in media, but it's easy to take it for granted when they happen one at a time, I think.

Adkins: We need the media to help. It's challenging with the issue of speeding, in particular, because we all do it. We're all guilty of speeding and the same with distracted driving. Media are some of the ones who are most guilty of that because they're always on deadline. They're always covering the story, but we need our media partners to draw attention to this. We need victim advocates. Those are some of the most effective people we have to advocate for traffic safety. We really need a MADD for speeding because most of us don't see speeding as a as a safety issue. If you're out at a party and you tell somebody, now that we can be out at parties again, that you were driving drunk the other night, they're going to look at you like you're nuts. But if you say, ‘Oh, I got here quickly because I went 90 miles an hour,’ most people are not going to look at you funny. They just may roll their eyes, so what we need to do is really build a culture that doesn't support speeding and that sees speeding, particularly excessive speeding, as a true safety issue.

Cranson: I think you're right. Most people probably aren't going to look at you funny unless you happen to hang out with a lot of traffic safety engineers, but you're absolutely right—

Adkins: Well, there's a party!

Cranson: [Laughing] Well, speaking of that, because you and I are both strict adherents to Crash Not Accident, do you feel like you are a buzzkill sometimes at parties when you correct family and friends who say accident?

Adkins: Probably. I think people are always surprised that those of us in traffic safety, some of us are social drinkers. As an example, I’m always the first one to say, ‘How are you getting home? Do you know about Uber and Lyft?’ So, we can be a little bit of a buzz kill, but that's okay if our friends and neighbors and family get home safely, I don't mind doing that.

Cranson: You don't find yourself off the invite list because of that?

Adkins: No, so far, I haven't. Sometimes I also know where the sobriety checkpoints are. So, people think I might be able to help them with that. I tell them if they're worried about getting stopped let's just get them home safely, so they don't get that ticket.

Cranson: Good advice. Yeah, so, Waze and Google, obviously, will alert you to speed traps. I don't know if that's, you know, counterproductive or not. Maybe some police would say, ‘As long as people think they're out there, you know, maybe that creates an awareness overall.’ And some other people would say, ‘Well, that defeats the purpose if they just feel like they can, you know, dodge them.’ And I suppose it's the same with sobriety checkpoints.

Adkins: Yeah, they're different opinions on that. I always say that just if you know about one checkpoint, there are probably a couple others you don't know about. But, again, the success with enforcement is that high visibility. It's not necessarily writing tickets. It's that law enforcement are out there. That slows everybody down, that changes behavior. So, the more of that we can do and the more of it we can do with community support and community buy-in is really important.

Cranson: Well, you made a point last time we talked, and I think it's relevant to what you said earlier about people getting used to driving faster, and that's the 85th percentile. There are still a number of people—I see these bills, you know, sponsored in Michigan to raise more speed limits, especially on rural two lanes. And so many people have bought into this idea that the 85th percentile is the benchmark, and that's really all you need to look at. And I think what you said earlier about people's speeds creeping up and staying there just proves the problems, you know, the flaws in using the 85th percentile.

Adkins: I think there's movement finally away from that. And we are seeing some discussions in state legislatures when speed limit increases are discussed about the impact on public safety. So, I think the tide is beginning to turn. I think more of us are out walking and biking, and that changes our perspective sometimes a little bit. We don't have the lens of a motorist, but we have then the lens of a road user. Most of us bike. Many of us, or most of us walk, rather, many of us bike, and that changes your perspective a little bit.

Cranson: Well, yeah, and I was talking to your friend, and mine, Lloyd brown at AASHTO, about that just earlier this morning. I don't know if you saw a hack on a dynamic message sign in Brooklyn that got a lot of Twitter traction, not just because it was funny, but because of the messages about how cars kill people and, you know, our roads aren't safe for pedestrians and cyclists. And it scrolled through a lot of these kinds of messages. I mean, really, here we are more than 100 years since motor vehicles first took to the roads and were, in fact, mowing down pedestrians and cyclists. And we still haven't come far enough in terms of how we all get along, whether that's planning and engineering and design and awareness. I guess it’s all those things. I mean, are you hopeful that with this administration and with Secretary Buttigieg that we're going to make real strides in that area?

Adkins: Well, certainly having a secretary who's biking to work is exciting for many of us. We've got a lot of work to do. I think one of the good things to come out of the pandemic is that, particularly in urban areas, we're looking at how we use streets a little bit differently. We’re thinking about, you know, streeteries and making sure that public spaces are accessible to all. So, I am hopeful. We have to learn to get along, and just because I’m a pedestrian and a bicyclist doesn't mean I don't have a car as well or that I hate people with cars. I like to remind people that Twitter is not life. Most of us bike and walk and drive, and we do want to be able to get along with each other. I think that's important.

Cranson: Well, there's an understood resentment, I think, by some people who, you know, need a car to survive. And it's just the opposite of some people who take public transportation because they can't afford a vehicle. There are some people who can afford to not have a vehicle depending on the expensive urban area you live in and what's available to you in terms of other transportation options and the fact that maybe you can just afford Uber when you need it, so—

Adkins: Right. I’m from West Virginia, and I always sort of chuckle when people say, ‘Well, why don't you just take the subway or use Uber or Lyft?’ A lot of areas in the country don't have those options. So, we have to make sure that we're not thinking of this purely from an urban lens.

Cranson: Yeah. So, let's talk a little bit about something that I know you touted on your website and the Washington Post did a pretty thorough story about, and that's the data that shows that the minorities: Blacks, American Indians, Latinos suffered greatly or more greatly, I guess, because of crashes during the pandemic. What do you think that tells us?

Adkins: Yeah, the Governors Highway Safety Association looked at data from 2015 to 2019 and confirmed, really, what we already knew is that traffic crashes impact minority communities at a much greater rate and level than those other communities. So, you know, it's really a reminder that we need to think about transportation broadly. We need to make sure that all communities have safe and accessible bicyclist paths and safe places to walk. We need to look at emergency vehicles and emergency response time. Sometimes communities that have a higher percentage of people of color may not have access to the best emergency medical equipment. It may take longer to get to some of those neighborhoods, so the response times can go down. We also have to look at how we engage these communities and how we message to them. We need to make sure that people that are advocating for traffic safety and thought leaders represent and look like the communities that they serve. That's really important for law enforcement. We need to have law enforcement leaders that are people are persons of color, that are female, that, again, live in diverse communities. There's a lot that has to be done on that, and the study from GHSA reinforces that. Then we have new data that you referenced from NHTSA that showed Black individuals significantly more impacted by traffic crashes in 2020. Non-Hispanic, Black people deaths were up 23%. That's huge to think about 23%. A lot of different thoughts on why that may be. Some folks who are smarter than I am, have said that it may be that minorities and lower income people were the ones that had to be on the roads in 2020 because they didn't have the privilege that some of us have had to work from home, thinking about restaurant workers and hotel workers and others.

Cranson: Absolutely. That absolutely had to be at least part of it. I mean, going to where you started, there's no single one reason, but that has to be a factor.

Adkins: Yeah, and we just have we have to do better, and we have to commit to do better. It can't be just something that we talk about, you know, equity has to be an ongoing effort by highway safety officers, by state DOTs and others. It's never, you know, it can always be better. Some states are probably better than others. Some communities are better than others. But it can't just be a buzzword that we talk about because there's a new president. It has to be, really, a factor in all the work that we do. Even for organizations like the DOT or GHSA, we need to look at how we recruit staff people. Are we posting jobs at institutions that are diverse, or are we just posting them in our own social networks sometimes?  That doesn't give you a broad applicant pool. We really have to bring in people from the communities we serve and that look like the communities we serve.

Cranson: Well, amen. You said that well. And I think that you're right that we need the Offices of Highway Safety Planning and all the advocates for traffic safety to factor that in. But I also think that it has to just be part of all the broader equity discussions. This specific topic, what we're talking about, and the victims of crashes needs to be treated like, you know, other public health issues that disproportionately affect minorities.

Adkins: Absolutely and thinking about law enforcement, a lot of the defunding efforts across the country are hurting minority communities more so than other communities. We've had leaders in the minority community in New York City and others make that point. So, instead of defunding the police maybe we need to refund the police but do it differently this time. We need to have better training, have better education, make sure that we're reaching a lot of different communities, that we're recruiting law enforcement from a broad spectrum of the population. There are ways to do this. It's not impossible.

Cranson: Yeah, I think that, you know, the way that I’ve heard it phrased that makes a lot of sense to look at it is adequately fund but also rethink. That's what we should be talking about.

Adkins: Rethink, accountability, transparency. There are ways to do this, and I’m always optimistic. I’m optimistic that long-term public safety and policing will be a lot better in this country as a result of the difficult conversations we are having right now.

Cranson: Well, now you've given me excuse to link in the show notes to, you know, what the President has spoken about the last couple days in terms of committing more funding and resources to policing. So, thanks for that.

Adkins:  Sure.

Cranson: Okay, Jonathan, this is great, as always. Maybe we can revisit this again in a few months and see if, you know, hopefully we're still emerging from the pandemic and more people are on the roads, yet that we're also seeing better results. So, thanks again for taking time to do this.

Adkins: Sure. Appreciate your time, Jeff.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.