I thought it was just me. After quarantining for months, I took my first drive on the expressway. Chicago traffic is always fast, and always busy. But it felt like people were whizzing by more often, switching lanes recklessly to dart between traffic. Was I just thin-skinned, out of practice from driving, and imagining it all? Or was there something else going on? Were people actually driving more dangerously than normal?
Thanks to new data from Arity, a driving analytics company and subsidiary of the insurance firm Allstate, we have an answer. The good news is that there are still fewer people on the roads than in January, so there are less accidents overall. But people are driving faster than they were before COVID-19. In fact, people are driving over 100 miles per hour 20% more often than pre-COVID-19. And accidents, when they do occur, are happening at faster speeds—a full 50% faster than usual.
As Gary Hallgren, president of Arity, explains to me, the company knows this because it analyzes a ton of data, collected discreetly from 23 million drivers across the U.S. Through apps on your phone like Weatherbug, for which you share GPS location and potentially accelerometer data, Arity collects a billion miles in anonymized driver data every two days. With GPS, it can see speed. With the accelerometer, it can see crashes. And with general access to apps, it can even see how much you’re using your phone while driving. Unfortunately, that’s up, too, compared to last year.
Arity offers a peek into just the sort of big data collection that can make people queasy, but in this case, they’re sharing their findings publicly, so citizens and policymakers alike can have a clearer understanding of how car behaviors have changed around the pandemic.
Much of what they found was really quite hopeful. Car traffic dropped 40% nationwide as lockdown orders went into effect in March, and people didn’t necessarily wait for government mandates to stay at home. “People were actually [quarantining] ahead of what states were [advising],” says Hallgren, adding that it remains to be seen how drivers will behave now that the virus is spiking in certain states.
Overall, U.S. driving has largely recovered since March. In most areas across the country, total mileage is now down only about 10% to 20%. That means in many areas, “things are kind of back to normal,” says Hallgren. That stat doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as you can see in this graph of Illinois. Urban areas, like Chicago (upper right), are still seeing a lot less driving than rural areas, comprising much of the mid to bottom of the state. This urban-versus-rural divide in driving is mirrored across the country, as city folks are still opting, or able, to stay out of their cars.
And of course, there’s that big asterisk of safety. “The speeding over 100 mph is real, it’s up quite a bit,” says Hallgren. “These are infrequent events . . . but these infrequent events are happening more often.”
The truth is, you should never drive if you don’t have to. It’s lousy for the environment, and it’s far from a perfectly safe method of transportation: 2 million people in the U.S. are injured in car accidents each year (PDF). But if you do need to drive at this point in time especially, Hallgren suggests being wary of drivers who are speeding, be it from the anxiety of being cooped up or the overconfidence of driving on a slightly more open road. Because it’s not just your imagination.