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Is the COVID-19 Pandemic the Tipping Point to Save Lives on the Road?

Risky driving behaviours existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but lessons learned have potential to make roads safer

As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2020, this year will go down in the history books as the year a pandemic spawned a worldwide health crisis. Almost overnight, COVID-19 prompted a behavioural sea-change to adopt essential safety practices. This was led by pervasive and relentless messages emphasizing physical distancing and constant handwashing. These calls were supported by scientific evidence and reinforced through leadership as well as continuous environmental cues to push us in the right direction. As a result, most of us got on board…fast.

Of course, it’s much easier to embrace the new normal of wearing masks and limiting interactions when our family, friends and communities – for the most part – make the change with us. Even if we didn’t feel personally at risk, we still changed our habits, either willingly (or with some encouragement from others) to protect vulnerable Canadians, first responders, health professionals and essential service workers. Their valiant efforts to keep us safe came at great personal cost and we stood united in protecting our families, friends, neighbours and co-workers from the spread of COVID-19. This situation has served as a poignant reminder that our words and actions affect the health and safety of everyone around us.

So why does it feel a lot more challenging to do the right thing and stay the course with safe choices when we are out on the road? Let’s face it, behaviour change is hard; particularly when it can seem like everyone else on the road continues to take risks. Despite best efforts, our commitment can rapidly wane when we feel like others aren’t making the change with us. And it’s even more daunting to speak up to encourage safer practices when you feel like the minority.

It goes without saying that COVID-19 changed our attitudes and behaviours towards health and safety generally. According to TIRF’s new Road Safety Monitor poll, it also impacted our behaviours on the road in important ways as described in this blog. Now is the time to ask what can we learn from the pandemic to help us prevent road crashes which impact countless Canadians and result in tremendous social costs? More importantly, what is it about our enduring struggle with COVID-19 that can move us towards that seemingly elusive goal of zero road deaths?

Changes in travel behaviours of Canadians

With less than two months remaining in this memorable year, there’s been everything from historic political events to the less polarizing success of two UK women who broke the world record for the fastest trip around the world on a tandem bike – 18,263 miles across 25 countries in 263 days, 8 hours, 7 minutes and 25 countries. The latter of which provides the perfect segue into the focus of this blog, travel behaviours and road safety. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that during the pandemic, almost 1 in 4 Canadians (23.3%) indicated their preferred method of travel changed. Prior to March, 2 in 5 Canadians (42.2%) preferred travel by personal vehicle and about the same number (41.2%) preferred public transit. Not surprisingly, personal choices changed during the pandemic with 2 in 3 Canadians (69.9%) preferring personal vehicle and just 4.4% travelling by public transit. But what may come as a surprise is the significant increase in the use of healthier, active transportation modes, like walking (120% increase) and cycling (150% increase).

Unexpected benefits of change

Likewise, companies and their workforce were required to experiment with telecommuting and some discovered the benefits were so significant, they may not switch back. This shift has not only meant roads with less traffic congestion but is has reduced or even eliminated commute times, and improved work-life balance for some of us. In addition, TIRF’s RSM poll measured a shift in driving behaviours of those still using roads. It showed that while 80% of drivers did not change their behaviours to increase risk, about 15% actually reduced their risk on the road and were safer drivers during the pandemic.

The question is why? Was it due to greater recognition that road crashes are a substantial drain on our health care system, increased concerns about health and safety not just for ourselves but for others, or simply leadership underscoring that we all play a role in safety. In truth, it’s likely all of these factors contributed to safer choices on the road, and we can capitalize on this momentum to convert a much larger proportion of drivers to follow suit. What may have started out as a seemingly overwhelming adjustment to a new way of working and living, has become for many, a realization that there’s more than one way to get the job done. And it’s not all bad. Ideally, much like the unexpected joy many have found in switching to a work-from-home setup, we could encourage more drivers to likewise rediscover the joy of driving…safely.

Resistance to change

It’s fair to say some of us have been heel-draggers when it comes to adapting to the new normal. Just like the small minority who were reluctant to don masks in public places, a minority (about 5%) of respondents to the TIRF poll indicated they were more likely to engage in risky or dangerous driving behaviours during the pandemic, as compared to before COVID-19. This may have occurred as a result of near-empty roads and speaks to misperceptions about risks such as speed, distraction and impairment by alcohol or drugs. Research clearly shows there’s increased risk of serious injury with increased speeds and a collision doesn’t need to involve another moving vehicle. Collisions with fixed objects such as light poles, trees and parked vehicles are equally likely as are collisions with cyclists and pedestrians who are now using the road en masse. The same is true for distraction, fatigue and impairment by alcohol and drugs. So, it’s not just about whether the road ahead is clear. It’s about the harm caused when preventable crashes occur and tax an already-stretched health care system.

Increased risk-taking by some drivers may have also been a result of perceptions traffic enforcement would take a backseat to the pandemic. Notably, even though police services are in the midst of some very troubling times, police officers on the frontlines remained committed to traffic enforcement with adapted enforcement protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in addition to their many and myriad responsibilities. Media reports of risk-takers caught red-handed by police officers in Ontario; Saskatoon, SK; and, Surrey, BC were prominent and no doubt effectively discouraged would-be risk-takers. This speaks to the importance of a strong police presence on the road in shaping safe driving habits and what could be accomplished with more tools, such as automated enforcement, to actively deter risky behaviours.

Tipping point for change

To say 2020 is a year of change may be the understatement of the decade. While change may not always be welcomed, it can create unexpected opportunities to adapt and learn to make better choices. And it’s sooooo much easier when everyone else is doing it. In response to COVID, Canadians experienced historic measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Across the nation we saw radical and swift changes to countless aspects of everyday living. Office workers joined the ranks of the WFH (work-from-home) workforce (to the rejoice of dogs everywhere). Retail stores and restaurants upped their game with online and delivery options, and parents embraced (okay, maybe ‘embraced’ isn’t the right word) the world of homeschooling. Masks went from functional to a fashion statement almost overnight.

While we expect life to return to normal (ish) in the future, at least some of the changes are likely to be permanent (no, not the homeschooling). The RSM poll results revealed many Canadians (30%) who switched to walking and cycling may not switch back….ever. This shift away from public transportation and even personal vehicle travel to active transportation has important implications for road safety. Not only do these choices make sense to avoid traditional interactions with carpooling and transit, they introduced many people to the option of cycling or walking who previously would not have considered making a change. It has also spurred cities to alter traditional road design to accommodate the surge in non-motorized traffic. A significant decline in the number of motorized vehicles on the roads created the ideal, safer situation to encourage others to choose something other than their car to get around.

This confluence of factors demonstrates significant change is possible to reduce road deaths, and it can occur quickly if we talk about why road safety is important to us. Maybe it’s getting more comfortable with speaking up when a family member or friend says they don’t think excessive speeding, or distraction, or impairment is unsafe because the roads are not congested, or they aren’t going very far. Repeated educational messages that reach users just before they get on the road can help turn that 15% into a much larger number.

But we shouldn’t stop there. Speaking up also means being vocal in your community when it comes to road safety priorities and strategic plans or infrastructure changes. If you think it doesn’t work, just look at the cities that recently permanently closed roads to vehicle traffic to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. It was unthinkable pre-COVID but today several cities have done or are considering it.

What does this mean for road safety?

It was Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who imbued us with the knowledge that the only constant is change. Over the last several months, we’ve become exceptionally adept at managing change and making different choices in response to an unusually challenging reality. So, we need to ask ourselves can this work for road safety too? The answer is, “yes, it can and it should”. At least 15% of drivers chose to take fewer risks on the roads. So how can we encourage more drivers to re-evaluate their choices on the road? This can be a case of, “I’ve always driven to work” transitioning to “I never realized how much I missed riding my bike and it has reduced my stress level.” Similarly, planning in advance to be on time and avoid distractions allows us to spend more time enjoying our time at our destination.

The bottom line is we all make choices on the road every day, and our choices affect others. #RoadSafetyMatters is more than a clever social media hashtag to motivate drivers to make safer choices, it’s something we can all keep in mind when getting behind the wheel. Road safety does matter because people matter, and we can all agree getting home safe, every time, is essential for us and those who care about us.

We’ve proven we can change and adapt when called to do so.
Let’s do the same for road safety.

#MySafeRoadHome blog co-authors: Robyn Robertson, TIRF President & CEO, Karen Bowman, TIRF Director, Drop It And Drive® (DIAD) program, and Ward Vanlaar, TIRF COO, work collaboratively as co-authors. Robyn is the author of TIRF’s knowledge translation model, is well-versed in implementation strategies and operational practices across several sectors. Karen is also TIRF’s Director of Marketing & Communications; she uses her writing and blogging background to help apply TIRF’s research to real-world driving, cycling and walking. Ward is a statistician and criminologist whose main fields of interest are traffic enforcement issues, risky driving behaviours, young and senior drivers, statistics and methodology, data management, safety performance indicators, and implementation of road safety programs.

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Source documents and resources:

Road Safety Monitor 2020: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Travel Behaviour & Road Safety, Traffic Injury Research Foundation 

Insider Inc., 16 of the wildest Guinness World Records broken in 2020 so far, Aug. 5, 2020

CTV News, Is the great shift to working from home here to stay?

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus, First published Thu Feb 8, 2007; substantive revision Tue Sep 3, 2019

The Role of Speeding in Road Crashes, Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Oct. 2020

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