Traffic is way down because of COVID-19, but fatal crash numbers are similar to 2019

In April, at the height of the quietus caused by Illinois' stay-at-home order to reduce spread of COVID-19, passenger traffic on toll roads plunged by up to 55%.

Highways and busy streets typically steeped in gridlock emptied and trips to downtown Chicago from the suburbs took half the usual time.

So why is the number of people killed in vehicle crashes in 2020 just 3% shy of those who died one year ago?

Between Jan. 1 and Sunday, collisions caused 439 fatalities in 2020, 14 fewer than in 2019 when 453 drivers, passengers and pedestrians died in the same period, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"It is particularly interesting given that when travel declined during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, then the fatality rate fell by more than one might have expected," Northwestern University transportation and logistics professor Ian Savage said. "So we have almost the opposite result now."

Speeding as a cause immediately comes to mind, since the wide open spaces of Chicago expressways this spring prompted many drivers to hit the gas pedal.

But statewide, speeding violations issued by the Illinois State Police decreased this year, from 50,810 for the first half of 2019 to 28,635 in the first six months of 2020.

One reason could be that crashes increased in January and February and dropped in March and April, IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. "It takes some time for the real data behind the numbers to emerge."

So far, IDOT statistics show that of those 439 deaths this year: 17% occurred on interstates, 29% on state or U.S. routes, 35% on city streets, and 19% on county/township roads.

Savage suspects "that a major explanation is that much of the reduced traffic volume has been due to the closure of schools and offices. These trips are typically made by people with the best driving safety records, and are conducted on congested roads where there may be fender benders but few fatalities.

"What is more interesting is whether the closure of bars has any effect on the disproportionately high number of fatalities that involve alcohol and occur late at night," he added.

Along with speeding, the usual suspects that "cause or contribute to the severity of a vast majority of crashes across Illinois" are impaired driving, distracted driving and not wearing a seat belt, Illinois State Police Sgt. Christopher Watson said.

"With it being this early in the state's progress toward recovery and with us never having experienced anything like this in recent history, it's very difficult to make assumptions or predictions as to what the causes are for any perceived fluctuation in numbers," Watson added.

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Traffic on the move

If you use tollway transactions as a measure of how busy the roads are in the era of COVID-19, traffic is creeping back from the days of the spring stay-at-home order. From a 55% drop in expected passenger car transactions in April, June transactions including cars and trucks were down just 27.5% from projections as of Thursday, officials said.

One more thing

On July 1, 2019, the state doubled the gas tax per gallon from 19 cents to 38 cents. (And as of Wednesday, it's 38.7 cents.) The intent was to raise money for highways, bridges and transit. So how did the drop in driving affect those expectations?

The capital budget anticipated the state would collect $2.5 billion from the motor fuel tax; as of May 31, the state has collected $2.15 billion, Illinois Department of Revenue spokesman Sam Salustro said.

"The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on mobility and thus the purchase of motor fuels," he said.

However, the $2.15 billion is a significant jump from 2019 when $1.25 billion was collected in the same period.

Gridlock alert

Sorry, East and West Dundee. IDOT crews are rebuilding the Higgins Road bridge over the Fox River starting Thursday. Expect delays and lane reductions from Third to River streets.

Associated PressChicago's Lake Shore Drive was barren of its usual vehicle traffic on Monday, March 23, early in the state's stay-at-home order.
Courtesy of Arlington Heights Police DepartmentFatal crashes, like this one in March in Arlington Heights, are nearly at 2019 levels in spite of a drop in traffic.
Getting downtown was a breeze in the days after the state-ordered COVID-19 lockdown, but data shows that the number of deadly crashes didn't fall in line with the drop in traffic. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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