Key Takeaways

-- Fewer vehicles are on the road during the pandemic, so year-to-year comparisons of crashes and fatalities may obscure increases in the rates at which drivers are speeding and crashing. Many (though not all) jurisdictions have seen fewer overall traffic crashes and fatalities, but they may still be seeing higher rates of crashes per mile driven.

-- Some agencies are reporting a spike in motorcycle crashes and fatalities. This may be because motorcycle riding is a recreational activity that riders can enjoy without COVID risk.

-- With reduced traffic, some areas have seen an increase in extremely excessive speeding. The Vermont State Police encountered drivers doing up to 100 mph on rural roads with a 50-mph limit.

-- After initially limiting traffic enforcement activity in order to reduce contacts with the public that might result in COVID transmission, agencies are ramping enforcement activity back up, particularly in areas where they’ve seen an increase in reckless driving and speeding.

-- Even as bars and restaurants were scaled back because of the pandemic, areas still saw a substantial number of crashes involving impairment, involving both alcohol and drugs.

Col. Matthew Packard, Colorado State Patrol

If you look at our statewide data, we’ve actually had fewer fatal crashes and fatalities in 2020, as compared to 2019. But I think just looking at that specific number would be a mistake. You really need to look at that as a function of the amount of traffic. Through that lens, the rate of fatalities is higher. It’s difficult to quantify because the measure of number of vehicle miles traveled has a bit of a lag, but they’re very confident that our rate is up with some significance.

We certainly saw this happening in the spring. Our focus on our traffic mission was diluted because of the steps taken early in the pandemic. Some of it was direction to our troopers to limit activities to the more egregious violations to reduce COVID exposure. We had a lot of concern about our potential role in increasing the spread of the virus, considering that our job entails having contact with a mobile population. So we focused on the more egregious violations, and our visibility was lessened.

Furthermore, we invested a lot of our time in protecting the supply chain of essential goods. We had a focused presence in places like supermarkets and other distribution points to discourage potential criminal activity there. That, of course, reduced our presence on the highways around the state. So I think we saw a degradation of our presence there and a resulting increase in bad activity.

The other trend we saw was a pretty big spike in motorcycle-involved fatalities. Almost always, the motorcycle was at fault. It was the perfect social distancing activity – go get out on your motorcycle and go for a ride. We saw a lot of drivers who may have ridden in their younger days but hadn’t been on a motorcycle in a long time, then were exceeding their capabilities on the road and getting into crashes. So we focused on that issue in particular.

In rural Colorado, we were seeing a lot of increased speed. We were able to get back on top of that pretty quickly when we recognized that as an issue, and focused our resources back to that primary mission. But we’re seeing multi-fatal crashes in urban settings that we weren’t seeing before.

When we look at our fatal and injury crashes across the state, speed, impairment, and lane violations are our top causal factors.

To address these issues, we went back to what we’re good at, which is monitoring our data to go where we can have the greatest impact. In rural Colorado we pulled away from those supply chain tasks and went back to traffic enforcement, and that was pretty helpful. We also used strong public messaging and partnered with local law enforcement around the state.

Lt. Tara Thomas, Vermont State Police

We have definitely seen traffic volume go down because of COVID. But July was the deadliest month we’ve had on record since 2008, with 15 fatals. So we’ve had lower traffic volume as a result of COVID, but it certainly doesn’t look that way when it comes to our highway deaths.

We’ve seen a spike in motorcycle fatalities compared to last year. We’re also seeing that our fatalities involving unbelted motorists is 10% higher than it was this time last year, so almost 60% of our fatalities this year have been unbelted motorists.

At least 20 of our 50 fatals so far have been impairments, and toxicology is still pending on many of those. I think 7 or 8 of those were alcohol, 10 of those were drugs, and 1 or 2 were both. Vermont has an impaired driving fatality rate that’s higher than the national average. We’re generally over 52%, and I believe the national rate is around 33%.

We’re seeing an increase in excessive speeds and impairment. We’re making a lot of DUI and DUID arrests, and our Drug Recognition Experts have been quite busy. We’re stopping a lot of people for 100 mph and over on our Interstates, which are posted at 65 mph. We’re even seeing people doing 80-100 mph on some of our rural roads that are posted at 50 mph.

Our traffic initiatives really came to a halt with COVID. We were focused on limiting exposure, just like every other law enforcement agency around the country. We were doing a lot of motel compliance checks in the beginning and making sure people weren’t having large gatherings, so we were more of the “capacity police” for a while.

Over Labor Day we started to get involved with the C.A.R.E. campaign again. Over the Fourth of July we did a modified CARE campaign. The message to our troopers was that this was not a campaign about license plate lights being out or defective equipment. This was about looking for the egregious highway violations, so that we would maintain minimal COVID exposure.

We are not doing any checkpoints. They are happening in Vermont, but if the state police are partaking in those, we’re in a secondary role. We are starting to reintroduce some of our traffic initiatives, such as saturation patrols.

Because of the pandemic and the need for law enforcement presence, some people in non-uniformed positions were put back in uniform for a month or two to help us have a presence on the interstate, even if we weren’t pulling many people over. 

Capt. Robert Krol, Pennsylvania State Police

We’re using our resources in a manner where we’re still doing effective enforcement. But we took a lower enforcement posture than normal, especially during the early months of the COVID outbreak with all the unknowns, including the possibility of a whole station being shut down quickly if we suspected someone might have COVID, and the concern of spreading it among the public. That’s not to say that we let violations go, but officers kind of stood down on lesser violations that don’t directly cause crashes. It’s not that we weren’t doing enforcement, but we were trying to do enforcement smartly during a pandemic.

In Pennsylvania we don’t use county sheriffs for patrol, so the state police are the full police service in all the rural areas. So we needed to keep COVID out of our stations to keep them functioning. We also picked up responsibilities from some smaller police departments in the state while they were shut down due to a COVID outbreak.

As we learned more, we changed the way we dealt with our personnel. We still have COVID-19 best practices in place for traffic stops and other interactions with the public, which combine information from medical authorities in Pennsylvania with best practices from police organizations.

When it comes to speeding violations, the overall number of violations as well as the number of violations for 100 mph and above are both down every month from March on. But they are still occurring. And anecdotally, my colleagues and I have seen a tendency for higher speeds on the highways with the lighter traffic.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.