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Despite Reduction in Car Accidents, Las Vegas Driving Fatalities Continue

In more than 40 states across the nation, Americans are under some form or another of “stay-at-home” orders. Despite some small and media-hyped protests against these measures, Americans are largely supportive of them and have been obedient. With so many fewer people going about daily life, traffic on the nation’s roadways has fallen precipitously. And with that decline has come a drop in car accident injuries.

Cause and Effect

Record numbers of Americans are out of work as the economy remains in a deep freeze to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic that causes the bizarre and often deadly COVID‑19 disease. The result is many, many fewer consumers running errands and workers commuting to and from work, daycare, schools, etc. Those workers fortunate enough to have been able to pivot to working from home are also largely off the roadways. Anyone who has been out on the roads lately may have observed a seeming paradox: gas stations advertise fuel for less than $2.00 per gallon, yet traffic seems to be a fraction of what it was two months ago. Normally, when gas prices fall Americans travel more and invest in bigger, more gas-thirsty vehicles. Instead, we are remaining at home and eschewing car dealerships.

The purpose of these drastic measures – closing schools, shuttering restaurants and bars, and directing all non-essential businesses to close or adopt significant safety measures – is to protect public health. The economic effects are secondary and collateral. It is not as though anyone benefits from 30 million American being out of work, a 20 percent unemployment rate, or a nearly 5 percent drop in quarterly gross domestic product; [1] these are simply the spillover effects of keeping people apart to buy time for medical care providers and vaccine researchers.

Two other spillover effects have been the falls in gas prices and traffic. The former is a complicated outgrowth of economic contraction combined with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. [2] The latter is the byproduct of everyone staying at home. And that latter phenomenon has had its own outgrowths, including a drop in car accident injuries. Data from the neighboring state of California indicate that traffic crashes fell by half once that state imposed its wide-reaching stay-at-home order. [3] The same phenomenon – a drop in traffic and therefore in car crash injuries of one-third to one-half – has been observed in several other states, too. [4]

Despite this encouraging news of fewer car accident injuries, the effect on automobile crash deaths has been less potent. Even if the number of driving deaths has fallen proportionally with the reduction in traffic, it seems that risky behavior is increasing the figures. This has been shown to be the case nationally, [5] and it is evident here in Nevada.

Nevadans Drive Less, But With Less Care

Nevada is among the states with the earliest and most aggressive stay-at-home orders. Governor Steve Sisolak’s March 20 order remains largely in effect, requiring the closure of schools and many businesses:

  • Casinos
  • Restaurants and cafeterias (pick-up, delivery, and drive-through permitted)
  • Bars, wineries, and breweries
  • Nightclubs and live entertainment venues
  • Strip clubs and brothels
  • Large conference halls
  • Coffee shops
  • Gyms of various kinds and recreation centers
  • Shopping malls and other retail other than pharmacies, grocery stores, and others that fit within an exemption
  • Salons and various other beauty-oriented businesses [6]

So far, the policy seems to have worked. Nevada has too few tests for COVID-19, but it has been able to keep the virus spreading somewhat slowly and at a rate that has not overwhelmed local hospitals. [7] The state has also seen a decline in Nevada traffic accidents by about one-half. There has also been a nearly proportional fall in car crash deaths across Nevada, with 12 traffic crash deaths in March 2020 compared to 23 in the same month in 2019. That is a decrease of 48 percent, largely in-line with the overall decrease in Nevada traffic accidents. [8]

But the figures are not quite in lockstep, and anecdotal evidence suggests that something else may be at play. If you have been on the roadways lately, you might have noticed that there are fewer cars yet, somehow, less speed. Some drivers seem to be taking advantage of the lack of traffic and the apparent thinning of police patrols to drive more aggressively, speeding along the highways and weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers taking these and other liberties may be boosting the rate of traffic deaths per vehicle trip, even if the overall figures match up with a proportional decline.

A spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Public Safety observed that the 12 Nevada car crash deaths in March “were primarily due to a lack of seatbelt usage, impairment and speed.” [9] A survey of recent headlines confirms this. A recent rollover accident in the west valley (Summerlin) are of Las Vegas killed two people and is thought to be linked to speeding and a lack of seatbelts. [10] An elderly woman died east of Carson City when she was ejected from her car after clipping another vehicle. [11] Speed is believed to have been a factor in a motorcycle crash injury that later became a fatality in south Reno. [12] And, in keeping with two persistent trends in Nevada traffic deaths, pedestrians recently died when they were struck by vehicles; one was a teenager crossing at a crosswalk who was hit by an alleged drunk driver, [13] and the other was a woman allegedly walking in the roadway at night. [14]  So while overall traffic has slowed considerably in Nevada, a myriad other driving factors have resulted in accidents to continue to mount on road ways in both Southern and Northern Nevada.

Ideally, Nevada drivers would take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime slowdown on the state’s roadways to adopt better, safer driving habits. Time will tell whether we rise to the occasion.

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/28/business/jobs-unemployment-coronavirus-hassett/index.html

[2] https://www.vox.com/2020/3/9/21171406/coronavirus-saudi-arabia-russia-oil-war-explained

[3] https://qz.com/1840736/coronavirus-reduces-california-traffic-accidents-by-half

[4] https://talkingpointsmemo.com/muckraker/car-crashes-plummet-as-the-us-sees-what-its-like-to-shut-down

[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-roads-are-quieter-due-to-coronavirus-but-there-are-more-fatal-car-crashes-11588152600

[6] https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/sisolak-orders-all-non-essential-businesses-to-close-warns-of-criminal-penalties-for-noncompliance

[7] https://www.ktvn.com/story/41996547/latest-models-show-nevada-is-flattening-the-curve

[8] https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/traffic/fatal-crashes-on-nevada-roads-decreased-nearly-50-in-march-2001523

[9] Ibid.

[10] https://news3lv.com/news/local/video-nevada-highway-patrol-seeks-witnesses-in-deadly-rollover-crash-in-west-valley

[11] https://www.kolotv.com/content/news/One-dead-in-US-50-crash-east-of-Carson-City-569872291.html

[12] Ibid.

[13] https://www.reviewjournal.com/crime/woman-arrested-in-fatal-hit-and-run-in-east-las-vegas-2016509

[14] https://www.8newsnow.com/news/local-news/nhp-investigating-fatal-crash-near-las-vegas-speedway

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