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Covid-19 has halved California’s traffic accidents

A car lies damaged in a solo vehicle collision in Los Angeles
California Highway Patrol/Officer Chavez/Handout via Reuters
A less common sight in California since the coronavirus struck.
By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The efforts to halt the spread of Covid-19 have demanded dramatic changes in daily behavior, resulting in side effects such as a notable fall in air pollution (Quartz member exclusive).

In California, the US state with the most registered vehicles on the road and one of the highest numbers of fatal crashes annually, the shelter-in-place order handed down on March 20 has had the effect of cutting traffic accidents—as well as crash-related injuries and deaths—in half, according to a report by the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis.

Not only that, the report estimates the drop in accidents has saved the state $40 million per day, or roughly $1 billion since the shelter-in-place order began.

Even just before the order, fewer drivers were on California’s usually busy highways. But since the order, the number of vehicles has fallen even further. On some highways traffic volume is down as much as 55%.

Correlated with that has been a fall in collisions, including those resulting in injuries or deaths. The report estimates that, since the order took effect, crashes have plunged from about 1,000 to 500 per day, and those with injuries or deaths have gone from roughly 400 to 200 per day. There was a period in early April when collisions spiked, but it was due to heavy rains.

From that data, the researchers were able to estimate the dollar amount saved, using the Federal Highway Administration’s equivalent costs for different types of incidents. Those include “property damage, treatment of injuries, lost time at work, emergency responses, insurance claims, and the equivalent cost of a life,” the report says.

States such as California aren’t the only ones saving money from the reduced number of collisions. The drops in traffic and accompanying crashes around the US have allowed auto insurers to pocket billions in additional profits as they pay out fewer claims. “These companies are making a fortune now because nobody’s on the road anymore,” David Ratcliff, a researcher at the American Association for Justice, a nonprofit that represents trial lawyers, previously told Quartz.

The decline in crashes and their consequences is a “bit of a silver lining” in the pandemic, noted Fraser Shilling, director of the Road Ecology Center and lead author of the report. The report called the fall in accidents “unparalleled,” and stated, “There is no equivalent in our recent transportation history to such large changes in vehicle movement on our state and local roads.”

Though it pointed out that one outstanding question remains: “Why are so many people still driving on what may be non-essential trips?”

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