Empty roads lead to higher rate of traffic fatalities

State official: Drivers appear to be traveling much faster

THE COVID-19 pandemic is having another deadly side-effect – a higher rate of fatalities on the state’s roads.

The shutdown of Massachusetts to reduce the spread of the virus cut traffic volume 50 percent statewide and 70 percent in the Boston area. But the remaining drivers are traveling much faster on the empty roads and dying in crashes at a much higher rate, according to Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver.

Gulliver said 28 people died in crashes all over Massachusetts during the month of April, which is only one more than in April 2019 but twice the rate per miles driven. Gulliver said the state would have normally seen 13 to 14 deaths in April with the lower traffic volume and far fewer miles driven.

“Our suspicion is that speed is a factor in most of these crashes,” Gulliver said in a Zoom press conference.

Preliminary data indicate there may also have been less aggressive enforcement of motor vehicle violations. According to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, there were far fewer citations issued in March and April than during the same months a year ago. In March 2019, 53,670 citations were issued, including 199 for speeding in excess of 100 miles per hour. In March 2020, the same numbers were 36,590 and 129. In April 2019, 47,211 citations were issued, including 150 for traveling over 100 miles per hour. The corresponding numbers for April 2020 were 4,385 and 134, although Registry officials said citations for last month were still being processed.

Gulliver said the crashes occurred all across the state – one-third on interstates and two-thirds on state roads and local streets. The fatalities included two motorcyclists, one bicyclist, and three pedestrians. Gulliver said two more motorcyclists were killed during the first weekend in May.

The highway administrator said the congestion that was plaguing eastern Massachusetts and many other parts of the state as recently as early March had the beneficial side-effect of keeping speeds down, so crashes typically did not result in fatalities.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Now, with the fairly abrupt COVID-19 shutdown of the state, Gulliver said drivers suddenly confronted with more open road than they were accustomed to seeing may have decided to step on the gas pedal harder. He urged drivers to slow down and get to their destination safely.

The Baker administration is preparing to start reopening the state in phases as early as May 18. While many analysts expect driving to pick up then, Gullivan said it’s too early to say what will happen. He said it’s unlikely traffic volumes will return to pre-COVID levels for a long time.