A recent article in my local paper cited statistics that roads in Massachusetts are deadlier than ever in 2021, even though the total number of crashes is down due to less crowded roads during the pandemic. It’s theorized that crashes recently are more likely to lead to fatalities, and that this is due to increases in speed and reckless driving. Data at the national level reflects similar trends to those observed in my state. The alarming trend is that after years of the data moving in the opposite direction, driving is now becoming increasingly fatal in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the U.S.
I’ll get out ahead of the stereotypes and note that we Bay Staters – at least those of us residing in the eastern part of the state – have a decidedly-deserved reputation for aggressive driving. Perhaps this is even more obvious to me as a Massachusetts immigrant (Although after 38 years here, I ought to be able to consider myself a native. The problem is that the natives wouldn’t consider me a native, now, or ever.). Arriving here as a relatively new driver from the genteel sunny South, I quickly learned that my new state was a place where “blinkahs” (turn signals) were for losers (“Why would you ever want to give away your intention? Chump.”) and furthermore generations of Massachusetts drivers had been trained that right-of-way went to whoever could first enter an intersection. This gives rise to every changing green light being equivalent to the christmas tree at a drag strip. If there is a driver facing your direction, you are prepared for them to floor it and turn left in front of you. Most do. If they were to use a turn signal, then they’d lose the element of surprise.
Jumping the green has only recently faded in favor of another aggressive driving habit…forcefully accelerating at Yields; with or without looking to see who might be in the main lane of travel. Again, this behavior seems to operate on the idea that the right-of-way belongs to whoever can get “there” first and that yielding is for losers.
In short, “we” (See? There I go assuming nativism that I probably don’t deserve.) pretty much regularly aspire to the vulgarities assigned to us by other New Englanders. But none of that seems to explain the current fashion for excessive speed and flat out aggression behind the wheel.
On my standard route into Boston, from close to the New Hampshire border (Rt. 3 for those familiar), highway speeds routinely vary from zero to about 90 on average…and this is often within the space of a mile.
Heavy traffic during peak commuting time creates constant stoppages, and then as soon as one reaches the end of the jam, speeds rapidly escalate back to the “normal” of 90. This results in a lot drivers weaving in and out of lanes as they pass the slowpokes moving at the snail’s pace of 65 or 70 and try to get ahead of the next slowdown. When miscalculations occur, crashes ensue.
The posted speed is 55, and when there are cops out looking for speeders, catching them is like shooting fish in a barrel; but mostly nowadays I think that the “Staties” (our name for the State Police who patrol our highways) just park on the side and wait for accidents. It’s really like this all day long and not just during peak commuting. As a matter of course if the traffic is light and you’re cruising at 80, there will be someone along soon to whip past you at triple digit speeds. You can feel the shock wave as they go past. I see it/feel it every single day. 30 years ago, I would never have thought that I’d find myself typically driving at 80 just to keep up with traffic. In the U.S.
The NHTSA data, as well as personal experience around the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic, shows that a penchant for driving like every day behind the wheel is your own personal Mad Max movie is not restricted to my home state. Add to this the fact that vehicles are getting larger and larger, more capable of high speeds, and that the amount of distracted driving is ever-increasing, and it’s beginning to feel like a bit of a losing proposition to get out on the highway.
Or even local streets. This last point was recently hammered (literally) home for me when I was rear-ended while stopped at a red light in the 45 year old Volvo…by a driver who turns out to have been watching his cellphone’s GPS more closely than the line of stopped cars he was approaching. In this case, the startled driver dramatically scrubbed off enough speed so that his speed at contact was (probably) around a relatively harmless 5mph. Some of Volvo’s safety features from 1972 – mostly body rigidity — did their job and there was no real harm. I held the brakes so that I didn’t get pushed into the car in front of me. But for about 3 seconds as I watched in my rear view mirror that car come up to me at speed, I prepared to kiss the Volvo goodbye. Every day I see similar accidents where neither driver was as lucky as me or (quite possibly pleasantly stoned…it seems when I got out to talk to him) GPS-dude. Combine this level of inattention (and possible inebriation) with the kinds of speeds experienced on the highway, and you can quickly grasp why drivers and passengers are getting killed at increasing rates. As are bicyclists and motorcyclists.
So, how safe do you feel behind the wheel in 2021? How many of you have started to think twice before taking your irreplaceable vintage cars out for what should be a relatively sedate cruise around town?
Are today’s vehicles too powerful (fast) for many drivers who probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a Cozy Coupe not to mention a 2 ton F-150 SuperCrew cab with at least 300HP (the most popular configuration of the most popular vehicle in the U.S.).
And what’s going on in drivers’ heads these past 20 months that results in driving like this guy?