At the start of 2020, it looked like it could be a dangerous year for people driving, walking and biking in Hillsborough County.
Gena Torres watched with apprehension as the crash data came in for January and February, showing as much as a 6 percent increase in vehicle crashes over previous years.
“We were in for a really bad year, I thought," said Torres, transportation project manager with the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization. “I thought we were on the cusp of unfortunately recording-breaking numbers. It did not look good.”
But like it has done with so many areas of our lives, COVID-19 changed everything.
The respiratory infection, caused by the novel coronavirus, triggered social distancing under safer-at-home orders issued in March. Traffic fell dramatically.
As traffic counts dropped, so did crashes, according to data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The state typically sees a bump in crashes in March as visitors come to relax on the beaches and spend their spring breaks with Mickey Mouse. March 2019 saw a 10 percent increase in crashes over the January and February average. That meant more than 3,750 instances of cars, bikes and people colliding in some combination on the state’s roads.
But with coronavirus restrictions keeping more people at home, crash data showed a 25 percent decrease in March this year.
By April, the statistics were even more startling. Crashes were cut in half compared to the same month in years before. The trend held true throughout the state, Tampa Bay and in individual counties.
“Honestly, to see any kind of reduction is amazing,” Torres said. “Lives are being saved. When you really look at the change, it is pretty impressive.”
Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco saw a decrease of nearly 55 percent over the past couple of years, when the number for the three counties combined averaged about 4,650. This year, with fewer cars on the road during state and county stay-at-home orders, that three-county number dropped to 2,123.
Statewide, Florida drivers were involved in 16,191 crashes last month. That’s less than half of the 33,692 the state recorded in April 2019.
“The numbers go up or down in proportion to the usage,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency. “The more people you have, the more crashes. The fewer people out driving, the less vehicle miles traveled, the less opportunity for people to do bad things.”
But Blanton thinks there are other factors at play in the crash data, too. For example, shutdown orders had fewer people driving to and from restaurants and bars, which means fewer instances of drinking and driving. And more people working from home means fewer people zoning out during their commutes and driving distracted.
“I think people put themselves on autopilot and they’re just driving to work,” Blanton said. “That makes you more vulnerable.”
But traffic levels aside, there are still aggressive drivers out there. Speeding is up, local data shows. One woman is accused of racing her motorcycle through Tampa and across the Howard Frankland Bridge on April 22 at more than 150 mph.
Speeds increased by at least 7 percent in Tampa in early April, according to more than a month’s worth of data collected from 54 cameras by the city’s red-light camera vendor.
Traffic dropped by 30 percent in Tampa, but the rate of red-light violators increased by two-thirds compared to the same time period a year earlier, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found. The company’s data also shows a rise in speed around the country.
Whether the low crash rate will continue remains to be seen. Both Blanton and Torres wondered whether companies receiving positive feedback from employees about working at home will consider extending the opportunity once the state has fully reopened.
Commuting accounts for about 20-percent of traffic, Blanton said. Even a small rise in the number of people working from home permanently or a few days a week could have a significant impact on rush-hour traffic.
“You would still see plenty of traffic in the noon hour, with people going to lunch or running errands,” Blanton said. “But you won’t have those dual peaks from 7-9, 4-6. They’ll still be here a little bit, but they’ll flatten out.”
Hillsborough transportation planner Wade Reynolds said the region still needs to move forward with projects to make its roads safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians, no matter what the traffic level. But the pandemic has provided a case study in how less traffic can improve safety.
“It’s going to be interesting to see over time how it plays out,” Reynolds said. “It’s really a great study in how much of a difference you can make.”
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