Bad behavior is up all over in the U.S. Some of it is merely annoying; ask any “essential worker” about how customers have changed in the past two years. Some of it is a major inconvenience, such as unruly airline passengers forcing flights to turn around or land immediately — an epidemic so pervasive that the Federal Aviation Administration publishes regular data on the airborne scourge. And some of the bad behavior is killing increasing numbers of people on the roads. The number of vehicle miles traveled is marginally above pre-pandemic levels now, but the number of pedestrian deaths is setting records in states across the country. A piece in the New York Times starts by looking at a 7-year-old’s death in Albuquerque, New Mexico, then surveys various authorities to find out what’s going on. The rough consensus is, “anxiety levels, larger vehicles, and fraying social norms.”
The debate about larger vehicles has and will continue to rage; what part does the sales domination of the pickup, SUV and crossover since 2009 have to play in the rise of pedestrian deaths? Traffic fatalities in the U.S. from 2010 to 2020 rose more than 20%. From 2009 to 2019, total miles driven rose by 10% but pedestrian deaths rose by 50%. This has happened while “reported rates of walking among Americans have been on the decline.” Nevertheless, Governing.com wrote that, “In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians died by car, the most since the mid-1990s, and that’s not including the 1,500 people killed in driveways and parking lots.” However, in the European Union, where the crossover continues to climb the sales chart, traffic fatalities dropped by roughly 33% from 2009 to 2019, pedestrian deaths dropping as well. What are we doing differently than Europe?
More and more academic and government types are saying pandemic-inspired mental states are the cause. An L.A. Times piece from December wrote that “the pandemic has made U.S. drivers more reckless — more likely to speed, drink or use drugs and leave their seat belts unbuckled,” and that “experts say that this behavior on the road is likely a reflection of widespread feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression.”
In the NYT story, the director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health cited the constant presence of threats like the virus and the lack of social contact for partly creating in society “the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.” A researcher in Washington believes vehicles are providing the same sort of detachment and disconnection we usually attribute to the Internet, with drivers “given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.” A scientist in Austin, Texas, said the nation being frazzled is partly from “two years of having to stop ourselves from doing things that we’d like to do.”
Check out the story in the NYT. And keep a good lookout on the roads and sidewalks.