The Blame Game: NMA E-Newsletter #610

At best, it is a lazy assumption. At worst, there is an agenda at play, facts be damned.

In late August, the engineering firm Sam Schwartz issued a release, “First Look at 2020 Traffic Fatality Rates Shows Sharp Spike,that ascribes an uptick in the US traffic fatality rate over the first six months of 2020 to speeding. No evidence is offered to support that claim.

Sandwiched between two quotes from Richard Retting, sometimes referred to as the ‘father of the red-light camera in America’ and current Sam Schwartz’s National Practice Leader for Safety & Research, is this statement: “While this analysis does not identify underlying causes for the increased fatality rate, higher travel speeds is a likely factor given emptier roads and greater opportunity for speeding.”

The Schwartz report included a review of traffic fatalities and vehicle miles traveled data from 22 of the 50 states for the first half of the year. It extrapolates from there.

In response, the NMA issued the following national press release in early September:

National Motorists Association (NMA) President Gary Biller cautions public officials and the media that a report from Sam Schwartz Engineering claiming a significant increase in motor vehicle fatality rates due in part to higher travel speeds during the COVID-19 pandemic may be misleading.

The report, based on data from a limited number of states, claims that while the overall number of auto fatalities during the first six months of 2020 declined by about six percent compared to the same period last year, the fatality rate based on 100,000 vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased by 12.7 percent due to a significant decrease in the number of miles traveled. The report posits, without proof, that “higher travel speeds is a likely factor” in the increase.

Said Biller, “The limited data from less than half the states and the speculation that vehicle speed is the cause of the increase in the fatality rate, along with other factors that Sam Schwartz appears not to have considered, provide needed context for the preliminary conclusions of the report.”

One possible explanation for the rate increase may be a change in travel patterns during the pandemic, rather than a change in individual driver behavior. An analysis conducted for the NMA by Jay Beeber, Executive Director of Safer Streets LA, using data from the Federal Highway Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for all states shows that fatality rates are higher on non-interstate roadways versus interstate highways, and higher on roadways (both interstate and non-interstate) in rural areas versus roadways in urban areas. For example, in 2018, the most recent year for which complete data were available, the fatality rate per 100 million VMT on interstate highways was 0.68 compared to a fatality rate of 1.14 on non-interstate roadways. Likewise, the fatality rate on roadways in rural areas was 1.65, while the rate on urban roadways was 0.85.

During the 2020 lockdowns, vehicle travel did not decrease in equal proportions on all types of roadways throughout the US. Over the first four months of the pandemic, March through June, vehicle miles traveled on interstate highways decreased 36 percent but were down five percent less than that on non-interstate roadways. Similarly, urban roadways saw a 34 percent decrease in VMT, while rural roadway travel decreased 28 percent. “This shift to a higher percentage of driving occurring on rural roadways and non-highway roadways, which naturally have higher fatality rates, could very well account for the increase in fatality rates identified in the Sam Schwartz report,” explained Beeber. “Additionally, Sam Schwartz was only able to obtain data from 22 states and the District of Columbia, and it is unclear whether these states are representative of the entire country. Further, motor vehicle fatality rates have declined over the past three years, so a small uptick in the rate may simply be a result of the natural statistical fluctuation seen from year to year.”

“It’s important to note,” added Biller, “that we are currently living in a time of historically safe roadways. The fatality rate on our nation’s roadways has decreased by almost 30 percent in the past two decades and is down about 80 percent since 1966. We should be careful not to put too much stock in limited reports announcing how dangerous our roadways have become, especially ones that blame bad drivers for what may well be a statistical anomaly.”

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