Traffic is lighter these days, but it’s too soon to say whether that’s made it safer for Texas motorists as millions work from home or are laid off.
One thing hasn’t changed: Texas is continuing its years-long streak with at least one fatal crash every day on a public roadway.
Texas Department of Transportation engineers watched the traffic drop through most of March and compared those volumes recorded at permanent stations statewide with volumes recorded the last week of February.
As stay-at-home orders rolled out statewide, traffic plummeted, down 41% in the last week of March compared with the last week of February.
Traffic in urban areas dropped even further, with Austin down the most, at 49%. Traffic dropped in Fort Worth by 42% and in Dallas by 37%.
Some consumer advocates noticed the traffic drops and began calling for motorists to get a break from their insurance companies. The state insurance commissioner in California ordered relief for consumers there, but the order came after several major insurers had already announced credits and refunds — most in the 15-25% range — last week.
By law, insurance companies can’t hang onto piles of cash, but premium adjustments aren’t calculated after just a few weeks, experts say. Instead, the companies’ announcements may be driven both by a perceived problem in public relations and a bit of peer pressure.
Nat Pope, an insurance expert and business professor at the University of North Texas, says the refunds and credits are uncharacteristic for the industry, even if the intuition associated with it seems reasonable.
“The fact that they are doing it 1) without being forced by the government, 2) providing blanket refunds without investigation, and 3) doing it before the end of the policy period, are all a bit odd,” Pope wrote in an email.
Accident data collected by the Texas Department of Transportation hints at a dip in the rate of crashes, but Texas peace officers make their reports once their investigation is complete. In other words, there’s no deadline to submit the crash data. Officers have logged 241 traffic fatalities in March 2020 so far, compared with 305 fatalities in March 2019.
Statewide, peace officers reported about 48,000 crashes per month from March to December last year. From January through the beginning of April, the rate has been about 41,000 per month.
In Denton County, peace officers reported about 1,000 crashes per month from March to December 2019. From January through the beginning of April, they’ve reported about 900 per month.
But Denton County’s count of fatal crashes has hardly budged: 37 of the crashes from March to December were fatal; 10 of the crashes from January through the beginning of April were fatal.
The Denton Police Department is still tracking its activity and does not yet know for sure whether there have been fewer crashes, department spokeswoman Allison Beckwith said.
“We have seen a slowdown, especially in the evening and nighttime hours,” Beckwith said.
However, officers have seen some extreme speeds — drivers traveling in excess of 100 mph — on the freeways and ticketed those motorists.
“We are enforcing that,” Beckwith said. “We’re not allowing them to endanger others.”
Robert Wunderlich, director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute Center for Transportation Safety, said traffic data, and particularly crash data, isn’t like the stock market.
“It’s hard to study it in real time,” Wunderlich said.
For example, someone might survive the crash but die of their injuries a month later, which changes the data.
He was part of a research team that studied the effect the Great Recession had on traffic data and noted a decline in serious crashes and fatalities during that time.
The current crisis is different, taking many commuters off the road, who aren’t necessarily the riskiest drivers, he said.
“Perhaps the more risk averse you are, the less likely you are to travel right now,” Wunderlich said.
For those who are trying to make driving safer, this unusual window may provide additional insight into the psychology of risky driving.
“I hope it gives us insight,” Wunderlich said. “This is a tough nut to crack.”