What states and cities can do to mitigate speeding during the pandemic

By Rayla Bellis

Traffic volumes have plummeted since the pandemic. While that has led to fewer crashes overall in some states and cities, a growing number report large increases in speeding citations. In California, the number of tickets issued for driving above 100 miles per hour is 87 percent higher than this time last year. Similar reports have emerged in Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado, New York City, the Washington, DC area, and more.

Some states are also seeing higher traffic fatality rates during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, traffic has dropped by 50 percent on average, but the rate of fatalities on state roads doubled in April. In Missouri, traffic fatality rates have increased while crash rates have declined, indicating more serious collisions. Minnesota and Louisiana report higher numbers of traffic fatalities during the pandemic compared to the same period last year, despite fewer drivers on the road.

Coverage of these trends has largely focused on enforcement, and the pandemic may indeed provide an impetus to improve enforcement practices. For example, with social distancing measures in place, states may want to consider more widely implementing automated enforcement systems such as red-light and speed cameras, which have been shown to reduce injuries and fatalities while helping prevent biased ticketing due to officer discretion.

However, enforcement alone is unlikely to eliminate dangerous driving. Current circumstances provide a window into how roadway design enables and even guides drivers to speed without the presence of other traffic to slow them down. Some cities are taking steps to slow traffic through temporary design and operations measures. For example, Los Angeles has adjusted the city’s traffic signals to “nighttime mode” to prevent drivers from encountering several green signals in a row. A number of cities have closed certain streets to cars to make it easier to walk and bike, preventing cut-through traffic, and some neighborhoods have set up barriers to narrow lanes.

Current speeding trends also emphasize the need for more permanent speed reform. Oregon recently abandoned the 85th percentile rule for urban and suburban areas in favor of context-based safe speed ranges. Los Angeles DOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds and others have pushed for reforming California’s 85th percentile law with heightened urgency in light of pandemic speeding trends.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.