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Traffic Deaths Are Up In Vermont This Year, Even With Fewer Cars On The Road

A highway past green medians and trees.
Despite roads going quiet for weeks during the COVID-19 shutdown in Vermont, this year's traffic death numbers are more than double last year's.

So far this year, 47 people have died on Vermont's roadways. That's more than double the number at this time last year, and it's higher than the average of the last 10 years, according to Vermont State Police.

So in this year, when the roads were quiet for weeks at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown, why have there been more fatal crashes?

For a closer look, VPR's Henry Epp spoke to Mandy White, who manages the data unit of the Vermont State Highway Safety Office. Their interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Henry Epp: So, 47 fatalities so far this year. Can you put this number in some context for us? How does it compare to previous years?

Mandy White: So this number is slightly higher than the last few years, actually. As of Sept. 7, we're [three] fatalities higher than 2017, which was the highest in the last four years. And that's double what we had last year at this time.

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And do we have any sense of why this is, what might be causing this increase in fatalities?

We do not. Just as it has been with other years, we are seeing speeding, unbelted. We have more motorcyclist fatalities this year than we've had in the past couple of years. It's difficult to say.

It's interesting that this is occurring in a year when traffic on the roads was far lower than it normally is, at least for part of the year, right? Do you have the data to back that up?

Yes. So, the motor vehicle volume dropped off around the 1st of April. We were at about 50% of our normal volume, as compared to last year, in 2019. We've been coming back up since mid-May, but the traffic volumes were much lower during the stay-at-home order.

And I mean, are there any trends in the data so far from these crashes, such as alcohol or drug use or speeding? Anything unusual?

The trends are kind of typical, where we're seeing more than 50% of our fatalities are unbelted. We're also seeing a lot of speeding-related fatalities. And we are also finding impaired driving crashes are still at over 50% of our fatalities.

I mean, is there any sense that people might be taking more chances on the roads because they've been relatively quieter?

Yeah, anecdotally, I'm hearing that from law enforcement that people are taking more chances. There's less cars on the road, or at least there were. And that's definitely allowing people that freedom-of-the-road feeling, I believe.

Vermont State Police keep track of traffic fatalities in the map below:

Your data lists a number of factors in crashes, such as whether a driver was under the influence, whether they were speeding. Do you also track whether drivers are distracted, whether they're using a cell phone, for instance?

We do track that in our data. That's a more difficult thing to prove. So it's underreported. Especially in fatal crashes, there's not always that person there at the scene saying, "Well, I looked down at my phone and went off the road and hit the tree." That's not happening.

So what will you and your coworkers be looking for as you analyze this data as more comes in throughout the year? How might you answer why fatalities are up in this year when traffic is down?

We ... will probably stick with the three major causes: The speeding, and the impaired driving, and the unbelted, and kind of target that as far as behavioral issues. And then look at the demographics of each of the crashes to see if there's any specific group that we should be targeting with our behavioral messages in the future.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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