COVID-19 has changed a lot about society, with many people working from home, wearing masks in public and socially distancing from others. A recent government study also indicates that the pandemic has also made us worse drivers.

While Americans drove less after the pandemic was declared, they were more dangerous when they did drive, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

The agency found that the number of people killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled rose 18% in 2020. During the year’s second quarter, the rate was even worse, at 34% higher than 2019 levels.

Why was this rate rising so much? The study cited three factors:

  1. Failure to use seat belts. The number of people failing to buckle up jumped, especially in the second quarter. At one point, the number of ejections from vehicles per 100 motor vehicle crashes was 1.5, up from .7 the year before.
  2. Speeding. All of those relatively empty roads inspired a need for speed. One study showed that median speeds in urban areas were up 22% from 2019. In rural areas, the differences between the fastest and slowest vehicles increased.
  3. Drunken driving. Alcohol sales increased in 2020. During the summer months, sales were around 20% higher than the year before. States where recreational marijuana is legal saw sales tax revenue jump as well. There were similar increases in the percentage of drivers testing positive for these substances. In the first four months of the pandemic, the percentage of alcohol-influenced drivers rose 30%, and for those with marijuana in their systems, 57%.

One other major factor: distracted driving.

Despite legal prohibitions and widely reported fatal accidents, distracted driving remains an issue. LeithCars.com surveyed 1,021 people and found that 97% of them had confronted a driver about distractions, including texting, browsing the internet, personal grooming while driving, and taking pictures or videos. In addition, more than a quarter of respondents had ridden with someone who read while driving.

The survey reported that 85% of respondents had experienced dangerous or distracted driving in taxis or ride-sharing vehicles. Almost half had experienced excessive speed or weaving through traffic, and more than 30% reported drivers tailgating, talking on their phones, or chatting too much.

Besides the physical dangers, distracted driving can hit people in the wallet. One insurer estimated that auto insurance rates can rise up to 23% for drivers who receive a ticket for phone use. In some states, the increase can be almost triple that.

The takeaway: This pandemic has been a difficult enough time for Americans by itself, and risky behaviors like these can only make it worse. Drivers would do well to fasten their seat belts, slow down, drive sober – and keep their eyes on the road.

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