Risk Rules the Roads as the Silver State Shelters

The effects were felt almost immediately, and the phenomenon has shown itself to be enduring: With most Americans sheltering in place and largely staying home, the roads and highways are largely empty. And with that drastic reduction in traffic has come a stark decrease in car accident injuries. As the roads become clear, so too does an analytical take-away: An emergent key determining factor in whether one will suffer a car accident injury in Nevada is whether one is engaged in seriously risky driving behavior.

Car Crashes Clearing

There are more than three million residents in Nevada, and both Interstate 10 and Interstate 80 normally carry thousands of vehicles across the population centers of Reno-Sparks and Las Vegas each day. [1] Traffic has been a feature of daily life in the Las Vegas valley for the last 20 years, and it was becoming commonplace during rush hour in Reno, Sparks, Stead, and the Carson Valley. But for the moment that congestion has eased as many Nevadans observe “shelter in place” directives and reduce their trips outside the home.

Until very recently motor vehicle accidents regularly clogged lanes of traffic with crashed vehicles, busied police dispatchers with car accident reports, and filled emergency rooms with traffic crash injuries. Although each accident was alarming, and each traffic fatality a tragedy, we understood this regular loss of human wellbeing as a social “cost of doing business,” the unavoidable downside to living in a vibrant and mobile State where most people had the freedom and opportunity to travel where they wanted when they wanted.

Lofty as this sounds, most of our travel was mundane: Trips to and from work, to and from the grocery store, hither and yon with individual errands. The conservation-minded among us puzzled over how to string together multiple tasks into a singular, mostly linear trip; the more impulsive flitted about from one part of town to the other as ideas and “to-dos” popped into their heads.

The reason for the use of the past tense in the above is obvious: the coronavirus. More specifically, it is the drastic effect our response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has had on daily life. For some, it has meant the loss of jobs and incomes and a devastating shift in life’s fortunes. For the most privileged among us, it has meant a voluntary but conscientious decision each day about whether to go out and what to do. And for those in the middle, it has been something of a mix. But the net effect of all those actions – or, more precisely, “inactions” – is that drastically fewer cars are on the roads. And that has reduced the frequency of Nevada car accidents.

Problem Drivers Take Center Stage

All of us has made a mistake driving, most of us have put ourselves in danger while driving, and many of us have been involved in a car accident of some degree. In well over nine out of ten traffic crashes, driver error is a key factor. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency devoted to monitoring car accidents across the country, conducted an analysis a few years ago of “critical reasons” for motor vehicle crashes. As the NHTSA defines the term, “[t]he critical reason is the immediate reason for the critical pre-crash event and is often the last failure in the causal chain of events leading up to the crash.” [2] Here is a ranking of the critical reasons for crashes analyzed in, and extrapolated from, the study:

  • Driver 2,046,000 (94 percent)
  • Vehicle 44,000 (2 percent)
  • Environment 52,000 (2 percent)
  • Unknown Critical Reason 47,000 (2 percent)
  • TOTAL 2,189,000 [3]

Ordinarily, it is the sheer number of cars on the roads that leads to traffic crashes; even if we each have a low propensity to cause an accident, when numbers get large enough, statistics began to take over and rare events will occur. Usually, it is simply the confluence of one driver’s rare mistake with another driver’s bad luck that results in a car accident. If the parties or their insurers do not agree about that, we use the legal system to determine who is to blame for the accident.

But it has become clear during the coronavirus restrictions that some drivers are outsized risks on the road. The Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) recently tweeted images of some of its officers’ radar guns tagging drivers traveling well in excess of 100 miles per hour on Nevada roads; the NHP observed that speed was a factor in each of the last four fatal car crashes or those involving serious traffic accident injuries. [4] Nationally, even as overall car accidents decreased due to coronavirus-related restrictions, the proportion and even the occurrence of fatal car accidents increased. [5]

This data sends a sobering message: Even as most of us are trying to do our part to protect ourselves and others during the coronavirus by staying off the roads, a dangerous minority among us are taking advantage of the empty roads to drive heedlessly. It wouldn’t be a surprise  to learn that these same individuals are the ones who cut us off, pass other cars aggressively, and engage in any of a number of reckless behaviors while on the road. Most car crash injuries result from a combination of modest mistakes and bad luck, but a portion also owe their tragic results to the wanton actions of thoughtless drivers.

[1] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/pressroom/fsi10.cfm

[2] https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812115

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.8newsnow.com/news/local-news/nhp-last-4-fatal-serious-injury-crashes-attributed-to-speed

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

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