The other side of the pandemic: fewer traffic deaths

Overall, between April 2019 and April 2020, road deaths in 20 countries fell by one-third, although traffic was down by one-half.

Firefighters clean up a large debris field following a fatal accident in the town of Strathmore on Highway 1, approx 45 km east of Calgary, on Sunday, October 18, 2020. Reports say that one person is dead and three others were taken to hospital following the accident near Spruce Park Drive about 4 am on Sunday. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Traffic deaths across Canada plummeted by 34 per cent as the country went into lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, newly released international data reveals. Traffic-related injuries also decreased.

The decrease reflected fewer vehicles on roads as schools and businesses shut down and many people began working from home starting in March.

“Covid-19, for all its negative impact around the world, also brought with it an unexpected, significant decrease in the number of road deaths in those regions forced to go into lockdown,” the International Transport Forum wrote in its annual report looking at traffic safety in 42 countries.

But the report noted that fatalities did not drop at the same rate as traffic volume. That was in part because emptier streets led to more speeding and many trucks continued to operate even as COVID-19 cases spiked around the world beginning last spring. Crashes involving heavy-goods vehicles tend to be more serious than those involving cars.

Some countries reported increases in average speeds and more severe crashes at the same time that traffic deaths and volumes went down.

Many countries had more dramatic drops in traffic deaths than Canada’s 34 per cent decrease. New Zealand, Italy and South Africa all saw traffic deaths fall by close to 80 per cent in a comparison of April 2020 data with April 2019 figures. They were among countries with the strictest restrictions in place at the start of the pandemic.

Overall, between April 2019 and April 2020, road deaths in 20 countries fell by one-third, although traffic was down by one-half.

Traffic volume figures are not available for Canada, but there is evidence that pandemic lockdowns have had a largely positive impact on traffic safety in the country.

Notably, Montreal Children’s Hospital saw emergency department visits because of motor-vehicle injuries decrease by 99 per cent between March and May 2020 compared to the average during the previous five years. Compared to an average of 50 visits for traffic-related injuries in past years, the hospital had three this year, according to research published in the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention journal.

City of Ottawa officials reported during the early weeks of the lockdown that traffic was down by 50 per cent.

In Windsor, police reported a 50 per cent drop in crashes between March and May, and OPP in the Greater Toronto Area reported a 30 per cent decrease in crashes during the same period.

Meanwhile, dangerous driving charges increased 200 per cent across the province over the summer, Ontario Provincial Police reported.

Pamela Fuselli, president and CEO of the Canadian safety advocacy organization Parachute, said the report reflected what people had been seeing: quieter streets and fewer vehicles on the roads. Since the lockdown began in March, more people have stayed home from work and have used active transportation to get around.

But, with a return to school for many students and workers returning to offices, there has been an uptick in vehicles on the roads.

“We are going to have to see how much comes back and at what pace,” Fuselli said.

Ottawa, like cities across Canada and around the world, opened more public space for cyclists and pedestrians, closing down some streets to vehicles during the warm weather. Other cities have also added bike infrastructure.

With colder weather returning and restrictions still in place, Fuselli said safety advocates and others would be watching to see whether behavioural changes that began during the pandemic would continue. Some have speculated that fear of COVID-19 could reduce transit use.

“We are kind of living through a social experiment in real time,” she said. “Are people going to choose to go back to a vehicle or return to public transit? We really don’t know yet, I don’t think. It depends on how long this lasts, and also how many people and their companies decide they are not going back fully to the office.”

Close to 3,700 people are killed in vehicle crashes around the world every day. In August, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a 50 per cent reduction in road fatalities by 2030.

With 5.2 road deaths per 100,000 people, Canada ranks around the middle of OECD countries when it comes to road deaths. Road-death rates have decreased steadily in Canada in recent decades. Iceland, Norway and Sweden had the lowest traffic fatality rates in 2019.

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