Why are there more fatal crashes when there's less traffic?

  • Mount Prospect police investigated a deadly two-vehicle crash in April that left wreckage scattered across Rand Road.

      Mount Prospect police investigated a deadly two-vehicle crash in April that left wreckage scattered across Rand Road. Steve Zalusky | Staff Photographer

  • A vehicle crashed through a fence and passed through three backyards before coming to a rest at the intersection of Kirchoff and New Wilke roads in Arlington Heights last May.

      A vehicle crashed through a fence and passed through three backyards before coming to a rest at the intersection of Kirchoff and New Wilke roads in Arlington Heights last May. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/17/2022 12:48 PM

It was troubling when deadly vehicle crashes rose by 16% in 2020 compared to 2019 even though COVID-19 decimated the number of cars on the roads.

Now it's a trend, according to preliminary Illinois Department of Transportation data.

 

Fatal crashes in Illinois spiked to 1,237 in 2021 compared with 938 in 2019, a 32% increase. And that's still with less traffic.

"I think that it is time to ring the alarm bells here," Northwestern University transportation expert Ian Savage said. "It was plausible that 2020 was an aberration. But this is persisting -- and getting worse."

Fatalities in crashes also grew -- by 34.6% in two years with 1,359 deaths in 2021 contrasted with 1,010 in 2019.

In 2020, there were 1,090 fatal crashes and 1,197 crash victims.

IDOT knows "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," spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said, adding it will take time to analyze the data.

Where are crashes occurring in Illinois? Surprisingly, about 41% took place on city streets, followed by 26% on state and U.S. routes, and nearly 16% each on interstates and county/township roads.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

With many working remotely, there's less rush-hour traffic, especially at morning peak times, said Savage, an economics professor. "Peak travel is associated with slower speeds, which tend to mitigate the consequences of collisions. If more trips are made on generally less congested roads, then any collisions will be more severe."

Veteran traffic reporter Kris Habermehl pinpointed stress as a cause.

"Whenever there is a crisis, whether it be 9/11 (or) the global pandemic, drivers will act more aggressively," he said. "Frustration and concern translate into anger, which, behind the wheel, is the setting for overly aggressive behavior and flat-out road rage.

"There are also exponentially more heavy commercial vehicles on the road, thanks to the explosion in deliveries. Combine large semi-trucks with small, aggressive cars, and bad things happen."

In 2019, U.S. driving totaled 3.3 trillion miles, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That dropped to about 2.8 trillion in 2020. This year, preliminary estimates show travel climbed back to nearly 3.1 trillion miles -- still lower than pre-pandemic levels.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Across the nation, fatal crashes are growing, Illinois State Police Sgt. Christopher Watson said.

"The consensus is distracted and drowsy driving are playing a huge role," he noted. "These are deaths that are almost always preventable."

Other causes are driving under the influence, not wearing seat belts and speeding. "Speed drastically increases the risk of injury or death in a crash," Watson said.

Sprawling population growth in the suburbs also strains local roads, said Patrick Gengler, chief deputy of the Kane County sheriff's office.

"The roads weren't designed to handle the increased traffic," Gengler explained.

"Look at Randall Road -- 25 years ago, it was a two-lane road. Now it's four lanes with turn lanes and stop lights," but it's still not enough for current demands, he said.

"At the end of the day, people have got to drive defensively, not offensively, not be in a hurry, and put the phone down," Gengler said.

You should know

Vroom, vroom. The Chicago Auto Show will return to McCormick Place from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Feb. 12- 20 and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 21. Advance tickets are recommended and cost $15 for adults, $10 for kids and seniors, with children 3 and younger admitted free. COVID-19 protocols require masks.

Vaccination status is not required, unless you plan to enter designated areas to purchase and eat food and beverages -- in which case, bring proof.

For more information, go to chicagoautoshow.com.

One more thing

Learn more about improvements to Arlington Heights Road between Route 83 and Lake-Cook Road at a virtual meeting from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, hosted by the Lake County Division of Transportation.

Project members will answer questions after a brief presentation. To learn more and register, go to lakecountyil.gov/191/Transportation.

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.