Ohio drivers speeding more during pandemic, researchers find

Less traffic means more Ohioans are pushing the gas pedal

By Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State News

Ohio drivers encountering fewer vehicles on the roads during the COVID-19 pandemic are responding by driving faster, a new Ohio State University analysis finds.

Harvey Miller

Researchers at Ohio State’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA) compared traffic data in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati from March 28 to April 19 last year with the same time period this year, when people were staying home because of the pandemic. Ohio’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 23.

Results showed that in all three cities, the average level of speeding was up slightly, but “the levels of extreme speeding have increased dramatically,” said TDAI affiliate Harvey Miller, professor of geography at Ohio State and director of CURA.

“The lack of traffic has really released the desire that some people feel to drive fast.”

Miller and his colleagues used information from INRIX, a private transportation data company, showing speeds on various segments of major roads and highways in the three cities.

For each road segment, INRIX calculates a reference speed, which is the average speed for that segment when there is no major traffic. It is normally close to the speed limit.

Comparing 2020 to pre-pandemic 2019, the number of road segments showing speeding by drivers has more than tripled in Columbus (from 18 percent to 57 percent) and more than doubled in Cleveland (20 percent to 54 percent) and Cincinnati (18 percent to 48 percent).

In all three cities, the average level of speeding above the reference speed since the pandemic began is between 2.1 mph and 2.6 mph, compared to a year ago when the average was 0.8 mph to 1 mph.

But some areas are much higher. Miller points to a section of I-270 on the west side of Columbus, where speeding has averaged 7 to 28 mph above the reference speed during the pandemic. Similar areas exist in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Overall, in 2019, nearly all the road segments that showed speeding were recording speeds at only a few miles per hour above normal. But in 2020, many more road segments showed much higher levels of speeding, the analysis showed.

“There are stretches of road where people are really opening up,” he said. “The average level of speeding is not very high. But the extremes have gone up quite a bit.”

These findings in Ohio mirror reports from other areas, Miller said. For example, speeding tickets in New York City have doubled, even as traffic is down. In Minnesota, traffic deaths have actually increased, despite the lower vehicle volume.

“The message is that less traffic doesn’t necessarily mean our streets are safer. In some ways, they may be more hazardous because we’re seeing more dangerous speeding,” Miller said.

The threats posed by speeding don’t apply just to pandemic times, he said.

“If there is one thing I would do to improve safety in our communities, it would be to reduce speed on our highways, roads and streets. Speed kills.”

Co-authors with Miller on the analysis were Jinhyung Lee, a doctoral student in geography at Ohio State, and Adam Porr, GIS project manager for CURA.

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