Is it speeding? Pandemic joy rides? Experts explain 10% spike in crash fatalities
Fifty-five more people have died in traffic crashes this year in Illinois compared with 2020, a nearly 10% uptick that comes as vehicle travel grows nationwide in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fatal vehicle crashes also spiked by 35, or 6%, over the number in 2020, the Illinois Department of Transportation reported on Thursday.
"The new numbers are alarming," said DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman. "Many of the gains we enjoyed in traffic safety are being surrendered."
State tallies show that 621 people died in vehicle crashes this year as of Thursday compared with 566 between Jan. 1 and July 22, 2020. There were 554 fatal crashes as of Thursday this year and 519 in the same time period in 2020.
"We are still in that speculative period, and it will take some time for the complete data behind the numbers to emerge," IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said, adding that 2021 numbers are preliminary and could change.
"But we do know anecdotally from law enforcement that speeding and reckless driving likely increased with deadly consequences during the pandemic, and continues as more cars are on the road in Illinois and throughout the country."
Nearly 39% of traffic deaths occurred on city streets, and nearly 27% took place on federal or state routes, with the remainder split between interstates and county/township roads this year, IDOT said.
Of those dying, 72 were pedestrians, 63 were on motorcycles and 14 were riding bikes.
Many city and suburban roads enable speeders, said Jim Merrell, managing director of advocacy at the Active Transportation Alliance that advocates for pedestrians and cyclists.
"We have big, wide lanes with a lot of room for cars to sit in traffic," Merrell said. "When they're not full of cars, they're like speedways. Even if you try to be a safe driver, the design encourages you to move more quickly."
Solutions could include bike lanes, crosswalks and narrowing traffic lanes. "That helps people drive at a slower pace," Merrell said.
In 2020 when COVID-19 struck, crash fatalities grew by 7.2% compared with 2019, although vehicle miles traveled dropped by over 13%, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
The most recent federal data shows travel miles up by 12.4% from January through May over the same period in 2020.
"People are driving more outside of normal rush hour when the travel speeds tend to be high. That is making accidents more deadly," Schwieterman said. "Many people are compensating for work-from-home arrangements during the pandemic by driving more during their time off. Long road trips are back, putting many people on roads in which they are unfamiliar."
Illinois State Police issued 226 speeding tickets on average a day in 2020 and so far 220 this year as of Friday. But DUI citations are up, with 12.6 a day on average in 2021 versus nearly 11 last year.
With the Labor Day long weekend approaching and an influx of drivers expected to head back to their offices in September, state police Sgt. Christopher Watson warned: "You're going to see a lot of people moving, especially before the last summer holiday. A lot of people will be traveling, trying to get their vacation in. Pay attention behind the wheel. The faster you go, the more it's going to hurt."
You should know
If you're headed into the city on Metra or CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority is dropping fare prices for unlimited ride passes. A one-day pass is $5 compared with $10, a three-day pass is $15 instead of $20, and a seven-day pass is $20 versus $28. The deal lasts through Labor Day.
One more thing
Amtrak restored full service on all its Illinois routes last week after pandemic cutbacks. These include the Lincoln Service between Chicago and St. Louis with five round trips a day, the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr Service between Chicago and Quincy with two round trips daily, and the Illini/Saluki Line between Chicago and Carbondale with three round trips daily.
McHenry Road will be closed between Route 83 and Dundee Road in Wheeling through late September as IDOT crews repair the bridge over the Wheeling Drainage Ditch. Detours will be posted.