On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation about why fatal crashes on Michigan roads in 2020 exceeded those in 2019, despite traffic volumes being significantly diminished because of the pandemic.
Preliminary numbers indicate 1,032 people died from crashes on Michigan roads in 2020, while the number was 985 in 2019. This, despite traffic volumes being down as much as 60 percent in the weeks immediately following stay-home advisories from the outbreak and remaining down around 20 percent through the rest of the year.
With many fewer vehicles on the roads and reduced congestion, experts speculate the open road contributed to higher speeds.
First, Michigan State Police Lt. DuWayne Robinson talks about what law enforcement officers are seeing across the state. As he told WWMT-TV in December, troopers had written 69 percent more tickets for excessive speeding, defined as 25 mph or more over the limit.
Later, Peter Savolainen, a Michigan State University professor and expert in traffic safety and traffic operations, talks about the impact speeds have on the severity of crashes. He says an age-old challenge confronts engineers who design roads and safety advocates in finding creative ways to alter driver behavior.
Savolainen also observes that speeds had been rising in Michigan in previous years: "Some of these concerns are exacerbated by the fact that we did increase speed limits across Michigan back in 2017. Speeds have gone up as a consequence of that. Crashes and fatalities have gone up as well."
Because of the pandemic, vehicle miles traveled dropped an unprecedented 264.2 billion miles during the first half of 2020. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that's 17 percent lower than the same period in 2019. NHTSA said deaths as a result of crashes fell 2 percent, but the rate of fatalities rose 18 percent.
As the Wall Street Journal observed, "In other words, an inordinate number of people died given how many fewer miles they traveled. It was the highest motor vehicle fatality rate for that span of time in a dozen years."
Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.
Jeff Cranson: Once again, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. Today, I'm going to be talking about excessive speeding and how the experts think that factors into our disproportionate fatal crash rate even though traffic is down. It was down as much as 60% at the beginning of the pandemic and leveled out at about 18% to 20% down. We saw more people killed on Michigan roads in 2020 than in 2019. It's really troubling, and first I'm going to be talking with Lieutenant DuWayne Robinson of the Michigan State Police about what he's seeing in terms of citations and in their investigations of crashes, and then later I'll talk to Doctor Peter Savolainen from Michigan State University, who has some expertise in speeds and how they factor into severity of crashes. First, Lieutenant Robinson, thanks for taking time to do this.
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: Thank you for having me today.
Jeff Cranson: So, just tell me, you know, what you've been seeing over the course of the year since the pandemic started, and, you know, what the folks that are in your post are seeing on the roads.
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: Well, pretty much what the rest of the state has been seeing and that is excessive speeding on our freeways, mainly on I-94, US-131, I-75, those stretch of roadways. If you remember back early when the pandemic struck there was that lock down statewide, and actually nationally there was a lockdown because we really didn't know how to address, you know, this onslaught from this virus. So, you had people still commuting to work and in normal conditions and situations where there is road traffic out there, it kind adjusts itself because there's so much traffic, but commuters all of a sudden had an open highway. They didn't have the traffic jams, and they didn't see a lot of police presence, or at least they thought the police presence had kind of slowed down. They took advantage of that and put their foot on the pedal and pushed it. Everyone knows the faster you go, you know, when you crash your likelihood of a serious injury or death goes up exponentially. So, we really have been stressing through social media and through news releases to the public to be mindful of their speed and to let them know law enforcement we are still out there. We are still ticketing and we’re pleading with them to please obey all traffic laws because it's kind of selfish too when you think about it. What do I mean by that? Well, we have all these people who are in the hospitals for COVID and we need the doctors to care for them and the nurses and whatnot. When you put yourself in a situation where you crash out and you need to go to the hospital, now you're taking away from the people that are suffering from this pandemic. Where that could have been prevented if you had just done the speed limit and not been so selfish.
Jeff Cranson: That's a really good point you make that people that might get caught up in these crashes were harmless people on their way to work to do something important to the cause, so that's a really good point. So, what do you hearing? What are you and other troopers hearing from people when they get pulled over for speeding? Is it just ‘gosh, I just didn't realize how fast I was going because, you know, I had an open highway, and, you know, I just wasn't paying attention?’ What kinds of things do people say?
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: You know, the typical defenses: I'm late for work, trying to get to the school to pick up the kids, the car drives so smooth I didn't realize how fast I was going, you know, all kinds of excuses. We've been telling them, ‘hey, look, we know that the highways are open, so why don't you use that old technology of cruise that we all have in our cars nowadays and set it so that everyone out here can continue to be as safe as possible on the roadways,’ so—
Jeff Cranson: Not only is there cruise on top of, you know, all the other new technologies, including auto breaking and adaptive cruise control that sets you so many car lengths behind, most cars now, modern cars, have alarms that will go off. You can set it for a certain speed to alert you if you've exceeded that.
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: Yeah, it’s just—so, as always, Michigan State Police’s goal when we pull cars over for whatever traffic violation first and foremost is to educate and to redirect, so we have been doing a lot of educating. We are handing out tickets when necessary, but our ultimate goal is to just educate the public on the importance of following the traffic laws, including speed laws, so that everyone can get to their destination safe, and so that you don't cause a crash that killed someone else’s family, or send someone else’s loved one to the hospital.
Jeff Cranson: I think a while back I talked about this with Lieutenant Shaw, one of your colleagues over in the in the Metro Region, and he said that you're also seeing, you know, increased instances of non-seat belt compliance.
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: Yeah, that's been something that's been detected as well. We don't quite understand. We just, you know, there are so many hypotheses out there that people are coming up with as to the other side effects of being in this pandemic here and that is people are just letting their guards down. You've been trained and retrained and educated and reeducated on road safety and then the moment it looks like, you know, the world has been shaken you lose everything that you've learned. You throw it out the window and you just can't do that. I mean, we all were kids growing up and all the values and morals our parents put in us, you don't suddenly just throw them away when you become an adult. In fact, you kind of double down on them because now you're out on your own and dad and mom are not watching you, so you have to do it on your own. So, with the roadways being, you know, less traveled and you may not see as many law enforcement officers out there, don't throw away the values and morals that you've learned over the years and self-regulate and self-discipline yourself to do what's right.
Jeff Cranson: That's good advice. I wonder if—I mean, I don't remember anybody, you know, at MDOT talking about this, but I wonder if we should have seen this coming that for a while when there were so many fewer cars on the road that speeds were going to go up and that could have been expected, or did that take us all by surprise?
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: I think we were all in shock, Jeff. I mean, that thing hit us like a storm, like an earthquake. It shook us, you know, every sector of our lives: businesses, work, schools, how we shopped, you know, went to the grocery store. I mean, it just kind of shook us, so I think people were just—well, some people, quite frankly, took advantage of the situation. Some were just inundated with the stressors of life, but that's why law enforcement is here and that's why MDOT is here. We’re here to reinforce those things and those safety measures that we stress all year long from our capacities to try and maintain a safe roadway for all drivers here in Michigan.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I think that a lot of people would be surprised at how personally the engineers who designed the roads and how the troopers like yourself who are, you know, out there trying to keep them safe how personally, they take it, you know, when there are crashes and when people are not driving safely. It really bothers them. They feel like, you know, ‘I spent all this time trying to keep people safe and yet these things keep happening.’ So, I think everything you said is probably good counsel.
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of our main—like I said earlier, educating the public that's our ultimate goal. We don't want to hand out $125 tickets, you know, especially now. People are just trying to live day to day, you know, with their bills and groceries and just putting gas in the car. So, the last thing we want to do is hand out a ticket, a fine and cost, to put a burden on people financially.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, well, thanks for taking time to do this, Lieutenant Robinson. Let's hope that as things start to return to some semblance of normal that so does driving behavior.
Lt. DuWayne Robinson: Absolutely, thank you for having me today.
Jeff Cranson: Alright, so, I'm back with the second segment of today's Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, and I'm pleased to have with me Dr. Savolainen in from Michigan State University. He's somewhat of an expert in these issues that we're talking about involving speeds and crashes and the severity of crashes at higher speeds. It seems like basic physics, but there's a lot more to it than that, I think. So, I talked earlier with Lieutenant Robinson of the Michigan State Police about the trends that we're seeing basically since the pandemic started. Traffic, as you know, was down as much as 60% in the immediate weeks after the shutdowns and then bounced back but ended up at the end of the year still down about 20%, and yet we had more people killed in car crashes in 2020 than we did in 2019, and everybody seems to agree that it's mostly all about speed. Is that your take?
Dr. Savolainen: Yeah, I think certainly speed is the one bigger factor, you know, just getting back to the fundamental nature of how we drive, and if there's less traffic on the road we tend to drive faster as a consequence of that because we do a pretty good job of trying to minimize our travel time from point A to point B, and safety, I think, is largely incidental of that. We're not actively thinking about what the risks are because if we think about it on a per driver perspective, you know, our likelihood of being involved in a crash is very, very, very small. There's got to be a combination of factors that contribute to these crashes occurring, and since we tend to be traveling at higher speeds when the crashes do occur, back to your point, the fundamental physics are kind of the determining factor in terms of how bad the consequences are, so, yeah, I would suspect that a lot of this is being driven almost exclusively by speed.
Jeff Cranson: So, there's all kinds of talk about education efforts and, you know, we know—I've talked to people at the national level about this and what messages resonate and, like you said, people of all ages, especially younger people, tend to think it's never going to happen to them. So, I don't know, what do you think gets to people that can make them actually think about driving more safely and altering their behavior?
Dr. Savolainen: That's a great question, and that's kind of the million-dollar question that's been facing the engineering and enforcement and education, the whole broader safety community over time is that driver behavior is inherently difficult for us to change. So, there's some things that we can do from an engineering perspective, but if we want to reduce speeds, we can try to design the roadway so that drivers aren't as comfortable traveling at those higher speeds, so that's, you know, one perspective approach to that. Enforcement can play a role, but there are certainly some limitations related to budget and other factors, and if we look at, for example, the political climate I can understand why there may be some reluctance for large scale enforcement as well. Then if we look from an engineering perspective, just broadly speaking, it's very easy for us to give advice to others but less easy for us to necessarily, you know, take that advice ourselves. So, just thinking about my own experiences when I first had my first child, I think I had started to change my behavior a little bit when I had the child in my car with me, you know, that sort of compensation effect. Then overtime my driving has probably reverted back to less conservative in nature, you know, and so, I think if you have personal experiences in crash or near crash events, or if you're aware of people, you know, family or friends that have been involved in crashes and things of that nature, I think that tends to resonate. But it's really a difficult problem to address in Michigan here and nationally, because I think in current times, you know, we're constantly under pressure to get to and from work as quickly as possible, and we tend to be somewhat impatient. In driving correct relational purposes there's enjoyment factors there as well involved, and so it's really just this mix of factors, and there isn't really a silver bullet necessarily here. So, I think that's really a concern to everyone involved here is just trying to better understand, you know, the nature of this problem and what we could potentially do to address this. I think some of these concerns are exacerbated by the fact that we did increase speed limits across Michigan back in 2017, and, you know, speeds have gone up as a consequence of that. Crashes and fatalities have generally gone up as well, and if you look at where there's pushback and reluctancy from the public standpoint, it would be those people that are most directly involved. So, we'll hear a lot of complaints, say, in small towns. I'm from the Upper Peninsula and you don't necessarily like those people coming into town, you know, 10 mph faster. Even if we drop the speed limits there's a general tendency, and this has been borne out by research, that some of those speeds can potentially spill over and you still have higher speeds even in these towns where we posted the speed limits to be lower. So, unfortunately, I don't have a great response or a great solution for you, and so I think that's something we're continuing to try to work towards as a collective traffic safety community.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right about, you know, having children and the first time that you wrestle that child seat into your car and go through the hard work of making sure it's in there properly and that you have everything fastened down. It really kind of resonates, and you're probably right that once you get past those years you kind of forget about it again and that's human nature. But I think too that it seems like all that we've done with technology to make our cars safer with adaptive cruise control and auto breaking and all the things that we know are going to lead eventually toward automated driving. What's really going to make us safer is taking the human out of the equation, but in the meantime our cars are also, you know, they ride smoother and that makes it easy to get going faster. So, I'm a firm believer that until we get to that point, you know, we can't human proof the system, right? There's no way to build roads and design roads and design intersections and freeways so that they're going to be free of crashes. They're going to happen, and crashes are because we're humans. The same reason they put erasers at the ends of pencils, so I just wonder long-term if you think is speeding is something we should be looking at. You know, we did raise those speed limits and some of your colleagues at Michigan State were involved in some of the studies and some of the testimony and some of that research, you know, are we going to be looking back at that in a few years and thinking we went too far?
Dr. Savolainen: That's a great question, and I mean preliminary data to that end, like I said, does suggest that crashes are up, fatalities are up, but this really mirrors trends that we've seen nationally. It's not just Michigan that's increased limits, at least half the states, if we go back over the past 10 years, have increased the limits on their high-speed roads. So, if we look at the response from the engineering community, there have been some projects and some research that is, I guess, conceded to the fact that will speeds are going up so what do we try to do to make, you know, the consequences of these crashes less severe when they do occur. That gets to some of the driver assistance type systems that you had referred to there. So, obviously things like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency breaking I think there's a lot of potential there. Interestingly, if you look in the research literature there's also what's referred to as a risk offset hypothesis, where as vehicles become equipped with these enhanced safety features, people tend to drive in a riskier manner once those systems are equipped. So, it's a real challenge, and so if we're looking long term, you know, sure, we've got the potential of self-driving vehicles down the road. There are a myriad of issues that need to be considered there because a lot of people just enjoy driving, for example. And so, I think there's a lot of unresolved questions there in addition to people loving to drive they love to drive fast, frankly speaking as well, and so—
Jeff Cranson: You know, I get that, and I think maybe there will still be tracks where people who really love to drive can drive because, you know, there's still places people can ride horses, so if that's really what you're all about, but when you weigh that against 40,000 people a year being killed, you know, I know you've heard all of the metaphors and all the comparisons, but would we tolerate 400, 100 passenger planes going down in a year? I mean, it's incredible.
Dr. Savolainen: No, I completely agree, and I use that exact same analogy in my highway safety course, and so I'm right in lockstep with you there. I don't have a good sense how knowledgeable the public is about the seriousness of this. Now, for example, MDOT has used its roadside dynamic message signs to provide, you know, year-to-date updates of traffic fatalities as an example, and I think that helps to bring the message home to a degree. We've run some survey work as a part of some of our research projects that have shown that the public is receptive to those types of messages, but still if you compare car crashes to various other types of killers, various types of diseases and so forth, it's very high up on that list, but that message for whatever reason hasn't really resonated as much. I'm not necessarily sure the reasons for that, and I think if we think about just the speeding issue in general, we also have some other factors that make that issue more severe. So, if you look at fatal crashes, there's an over representation of fatalities at night, and so at night we can't see as far ahead in the roadway, so if you're going at higher speeds, you know, it's more likely you're going to be involved in a collision, for example. Fatalities are—
Jeff Cranson: There was a time when we had lower speeds at night. We had lower speed limits, right?
Dr. Savolainen: Absolutely, and things like drinking and driving, you know, part of the reason there's such an over representation of fatal crashes there is that your functional ability is just degraded, you know, you don't have the reaction time, you don't have the visual acuity, and if you're driving faster and also under the influence these problems, exacerbating one another. Then I guess the third example there would be distracted driving and just think of the analogy if you're going 5 or 10 mph faster and you're looking down at your cell phone when you're traveling that much further. And so, you know, if we look at the pandemic specifically, back to your initial question, I'd say that the one big factor that changed is just how many people are on the road, but we haven't changed many of the bad driving behaviors and practices that we have. I would suggest that a lot of those behaviors are probably more prevalent now because people may be more likely to drive distracted if there's less traffic on the road, you know, and things of that nature. So, we're continuing to learn more about this, but it's clear that we just have some fundamental issues here that are very challenging to deal with, and it will be interesting to see what solutions we may come up with to try to address this moving forward.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, and the state police and other investigative agencies have also seen a trend in not as many people wearing seatbelts, which is also troubling and hard to figure out why that coincides with all of this, I don't know. There are a lot of theories about that too that, I mean, why are people in such a hurry during a pandemic? There's a lot of things that just don't make sense, but I really appreciate your insights and I think as this goes on and you and your colleagues do more research and more study this is something we want to talk about some more. So, thank you very much for taking your time.
Dr. Savolainen: Absolutely, I appreciate it. Thank you much.
Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more by subscribing on Apple podcast.