The Covid-19 pandemic has kept most Americans locked down for weeks now, but the tight public health measures, alas, haven’t slashed as much as might be hoped two leading, non-virus causes of harms to people: reckless driving and senseless violence, especially with guns.
The road mayhem is a real head-scratcher, as a frequent factor in fender-benders and motorist frustration has all but vanished: traffic congestion. As the Washington Post reported:
“Traffic nationwide is down 41% compared with pre-pandemic volumes, according to the transportation-data firm Inrix. Some of the country’s busiest highways have emptied, with volumes down by 50% in Los Angeles, 60% in New York City and 68% in Washington …But traffic incidents, such as crashes, have dropped only 21% nationwide. In some of the most congested areas of the country, average speeds have increased by as much as 250%. For example, the average 5 p.m. speed on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles went from a crawling 19 mph to 68 mph, Inrix says. In Chicago, the average speed on Interstate 290 more than doubled to 62 mph from 24 mph. In the Washington region, average speeds during the evening rush rose from 27 mph to nearly 70 mph on the Capital Beltway, well above the posted 55 mph limit.”
Motorists have responded to the suddenly open roads and highways by slamming the gas pedal to metal, the newspaper reported:
“In the Washington region, average speeds are up by as much as 50% on some routes in the nation’s capital, city transportation officials said, and there has been a troubling increase in people driving 15 mph or more over the speed limit. The problem is more pronounced in the Washington suburbs, where a string of speed-related crashes led police to step up enforcement and issue hundreds of traffic citations in recent weeks. Maryland State Police beefed up enforcement on the Capital Beltway in late April after responding to crashes where speed was suspected as a cause.”
Not only are drivers flying on highways — with state troopers from coast-to-coast and in Maryland and Virginia clocking motorists zooming at speeds “topping 130 mph” — but residential streets are feeling the pain too. Those paths, of course, are fuller these days with pedestrians and bikers trying to get out of the house for safe exercise.
Can it be worse? Yes, the Washington Post reported that the folks zipping by in their cars, trucks, and on their motorcycles aren’t just speeding — they also are more distracted than usual:
“A study … by the data analytics company Zendrive found motorists are braking harder and using their phones more while driving. The analysis of millions of miles of driving data based on smartphone sensors found speeding is up by 27% on average, while hard braking climbed 25%. Phone usage on the nation’s roadways steadily increased in the weeks following the stay-at-home guidelines, up by 38% in mid-April, according to the report.”
The toll from the knuckleheaded behavior has been terrible, the Los Angeles Times noted, reporting on this unacceptable trend in the car capital of the country:
“Los Angeles has seen almost as many deaths from traffic crashes as from homicides this year, said [LAPD] Cmdr. Marc Reina, who oversees the department’s traffic operations. Through mid-May, 86 people have died in traffic collisions and 89 have died of homicides …”
Authorities have stepped up their enforcement, while seeing what a sizable decline in motoring mishaps should be prove out to be far less, the Washington Post reported:
“Although traffic is down 50% in [Maryland], the number of crashes has been reduced by only 24%, while fatalities are down about 30%, according to preliminary data on incidents investigated by Maryland State Police. Maryland state troopers have issued more than 1,000 traffic citations and warnings on highways in suburban Washington since March 15 … Across the Potomac River, in Virginia, state troopers have caught people flying through 55 mph zones on Interstate 95 at speeds as high as 132 mph. Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said troopers have seen an uptick in more ‘extreme speeding’ on interstates that are less crowded during the stay-at-home directives, and they are more actively enforcing posted speed limits. Traffic fatalities in Virginia dropped nearly 30% since the state of emergency went into effect in mid-March, according to preliminary crash data. But speed has been a factor in a larger share of serious crashes during the coronavirus emergency, contributing to nearly half of the 72 traffic fatalities in the state since March 13.”
For trauma centers, persistent cases of senseless violence
For health care workers in trauma centers nationwide, Covid-19 has been a nightmare but not the only one: Caregivers also continue to grapple with senseless violence that leads to stabbings and shootings.
As the nonprofit, independent Kaiser Health News Service reported of the persistent carnage that causes hundreds of adults annually to be taken in bad shape to just one Chicago medical center, now also overrun with coronavirus infections:
“Gunshot victims account for most of the 2,600 adult trauma patients a year who come to [the University of Chicago Medical Center] on the city’s sprawling South Side. And the pandemic hasn’t dampened the flow. ‘The visible virus of violence continues unabated, said trauma chief Dr. Selwyn Rogers Jr. The Chicago hospital’s experience mirrors what’s happening at other metropolitan trauma units around the nation, where the number of patients seeking care for injuries caused by … gunshot wounds or stabbings … appear to be holding steady, straining hospitals already busy fighting Covid-19 … About a third of the University of Chicago Medicine’s adult trauma patients are gunshot victims, Rogers said. The volume has remained steady despite the city and state issuing a stay-at-home order March 21 … In fact, Rogers said, domestic violence incidents appear to be on the rise as people shelter in place. ‘It’s not surprising that penetrating trauma has kind of stayed stable,’ said Dr. Kenji Inaba, trauma chief for the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. ‘One could surmise there’s a lot of potential for this: people being at home, in close contact with others. There’s still potential for that human-on-human interaction to occur’ … At the Los Angeles trauma center, early spring is generally quieter… [Inaba] said the unit usually has about 60 to 70 patients weekly with blunt injuries, such as those caused by car or construction accidents. That number has recently been down to as low as 10 to 25 cases as fewer people are driving and working. But the number of gunshot and stabbing victims has effectively remained static — and maybe even ticked up a bit — hovering around 10 to 15 cases a week … At Houston’s Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, which has been called the busiest trauma center in the country, blunt trauma cases dropped by about 5% while penetrating trauma incidents rose by roughly 3% in the three weeks after the city started its March 16 shutdown, according to trauma chief Dr. Michelle McNutt … ”
The shooting and stabbing cases add to the already heavy stresses of the highly trained and specialized doctors, nurses, and other emergency personnel, most of whom also have been treating coronavirus cases. When treating wounded patients, health care workers also must gear up as if caring for a highly infectious Covid-19 case, meaning they must wear uncomfortable and precious personal protective equipment. The violent incidents also come with their own personal dramas, worsened because infection controls prevent loved ones from entering trauma areas with the wounded.
Although states and local governments have begun to ease some of the most stringent public health restrictions related to the pandemic, concern is rising about domestic abuse and violence. The Covid-19 crisis has laid bare staggering problems nationwide with poverty, joblessness, hunger, social and racial inequities, as well as unequal health care. These conditions, combined with curtailed programs to deal with many kinds of violence, may lead to increased anger, despair, and acting out. Experts also have seen another major worry come to pass — with gun shops and sales allowed and booming during the coronavirus shutdowns, kids are suffering unintended wounds and are dying from guns in their home.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by car, truck, and motorcycle wrecks and by defective and dangerous products, typically of the medical kind but also potentially including weaponry. Because we all will eke our way back to normality at differing paces depending on where we live, the nation isn’t going to spring back all of a sudden to all the ways that prevailed before. Traffic will remain spare for a time, gradually increasing — here’s hoping not to the choking levels before.
But for now and the future, we all can attack the increasing road toll and abide by laws aimed to protect not only individual drivers but also everyone around them. Motorists know that the lesser traffic means they won’t struggle as much to get where they are going and don’t need to race from here to there. Even in recent times, they needed to avoid distractions — especially using smart phones and texting — intoxicants and driving while sleepy.
As a Los Angeles police officer observed: “Every driver ‘has control of a 5,000-pound missile,’ and should take extra care in watching for people on foot, on bikes and with strollers and carts …”
It’s a more complicated question as to what the nation might do to deal better with the ceaseless horror of too many shootings and stabbings. Here’s a modest suggestion, especially as the weather warms and people get antsy about the difficult days ahead with Covid-19: Can we all turn down our words and actions by 10, 20, or 30 degrees or more? The virus sickens and kills indiscriminately. But in a time of extreme stress, uncertainty, and folks dealing with huge complexities — in their lives, livelihoods, and how to get by each and every day — the last thing any of us needs is furious, screaming, spitting strangers, particularly ones with a knife or a gun, insisting in stores or protests that they know what’s best for all. We’ve got a lot of work to do — together — so let’s slow down on the roads and stay calm during this crisis, please.