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If healthcare providers have sensed a significant overall increase in the number of patients who have been severely injured, or who have even lost their lives in motor vehicle collisions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is now evidence to confirm these suspicions. A recent eye-opening report from the Los Angeles Times confirms that just as we have all changed our daily behaviors during the pandemic, we have also drastically changed the way in which we drive our motor vehicles, and not for the better. Even though many of us have reduced the amount of driving we do because of working remotely or shopping online, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now reports that the U.S. experienced 38,680 deaths on our roadways in 2020. That is the single highest number since 2007, and an increase of 7.2%. Even worse, during the first six months of 2021, the number of traffic fatalities on our roadways has jumped by an additional 18%, with the highest percentage coming from the Northwest corner of the country. By contrast, annual traffic fatalities had previously fallen decade over decade from around 55,000 per year in 1970 to 36,096 in 2019. In short, drivers are driving far more recklessly since the start of the pandemic by speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and not fastening their seatbelts.
The exact reasons why drivers are increasingly reckless behind the wheel may be case-specific, but in a general sense, researchers have suggested that feelings of isolation, depression or frustration as a result of the pandemic are translating into the way we drive. These feelings have also led to an increase in the use of intoxicating substances such as alcohol, cannabis, and prescription medications behind the wheel. All of these factors lead to a more “rebellious” type of driving, according to Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. The result is that minorities and lower income drivers have seen a sharp spike in the number of vehicle-related fatalities, particularly in the Black community. The number of fatal collisions involving only one vehicle has increased. More people have been ejected from their vehicles because they are not wearing seatbelts, and mostly among men.
From a legal perspective, this negative trend brings up the importance of several relevant principles of law here in Washington State:
PIP and UM/UIM insurance are more important than ever
Personal Injury Protection (PIP) is the least expensive part of auto insurance policy premiums, but it provides the greatest return on investment. For example, for the price of lunch for 2 in a restaurant, drivers can insure themselves for up to a minimum of $10,000.00 in insurance benefits to assist with medical payments, lost wages from work, and household expenses if they are injured, regardless of who is at fault. Sadly, many drivers are cutting corners and not carrying PIP on their auto insurance policies, either to save a few dollars, or because they are given bad advice when purchasing insurance.
Uninsured / Underinsured Motorist coverage provides drivers with additional insurance benefits if they are ever injured by another driver who did not have any insurance, or, who did not have enough insurance to cover the damages that they caused. In our law firm, we find that the same trends with PIP insurance emerge with UM/UIM insurance – drivers are increasingly not buying this coverage, either to save money or because of bad advice. These drivers without this coverage may not have much recourse if they are injured by another driver that has little to no insurance.
Drivers are increasingly using their phone while they drive
According to statistics from the Zendrive Collision Report, 57% of all motor vehicle collisions involved phone use in 2020. 17% of all collisions involved phone use within five seconds of impact. Additionally, nearly one out of every five collisions are directly caused by a phone-related distraction.
There are no “punitive damages” in Washington State for reckless or even intoxicated driving
Most states allow judges and juries in civil cases to increase the dollars awarded to victims in order to punish the behavior of particularly reckless or intoxicated drivers. However, Washington State is not one of them, even if the collision results in a fatality.
All of these trends make it even more important that we get back to the basics when it comes to driving: drive the safest vehicles we can, with adequate insurance, without using our phones, and don’t drive angry.