Pandemic paves potential for increase in vehicle crashes

A new study has found that there may an anecdotal link between Covid-19 and worsening driver behaviour, which means South Africa’s hellish highways and road rage incidents may make driving conditions even worse than before the pandemic. 

Although bumper-to-bumper traffic has subsided substantially since lockdown was implemented, vehicle crashes are still occurring, and Head of the Driver Assess programme, Keith Cunningham, explained that the gradual reopening of the economy means more cars on the road.

“The concern is that heightened anxieties caused by the pandemic could result in more irrational road behaviour.”

Driver Assess categorises subscribers into low, medium or high-risk drivers, and provides guidance on how risky behaviour in a vehicle can be improved, for people to “acknowledge their behavioural blindspots.” 

Cunningham believes most South African drivers are low to low medium-risk drivers. 

He said our vehicle crash rate per 100,000 drivers is among the highest in the world, and that an estimated 45.6 billion aggressive exchanges take place every year. 

“One does not have to be an expert to experience the aggression on the roads. Aggressive exchanges make the roads more dangerous and unpleasant to drive on.”

Driver Assess data indicates that high-risk drivers routinely ignore that they are part of the country’s road safety problem. These drivers’ skills are often rated 2.5 out of 10 by a driving instructor, despite high-risk drivers rating their skills 7.5 out of 10, he explained. 

“The danger with these drivers is that they hold onto the emotion for some time and are in a heightened state… ready to react to any behaviour they find offensive or wrong. This makes driving for everyone fraught with tension, anxiety, anger, fear, and traffic becomes disjointed… we are not driving consciously and defensively.”

Automobile Association (AA) spokesperson Layton Beard explained that aggressive behaviour on the road is not a singular event, but a build-up of emotions, which could potentially be heightened during the pandemic. 

“Emotions are heightened due to a driver’s worries. It might not just be Covid creating this anxiety, but it adds to the overall anxiety a driver has. It may be one of those little cogs in that emotional chain,” Beard explained. 

Cunningham explained that Covid-19 has heightened fear and anxiety within society, with a host of associated challenges, such as loss of employment or pay cuts, and no alcohol or cigarettes. 

He added that during lockdown Levels 4 and 5, there were still a significant amount of crashes, despite curfew. 

“My belief is that the people who were prepared to drive in spite of the lockdown were the higher risk drivers, they had the right to do what they wanted and ignoring or breaking the law is what they do – in life, not just on the road.”

Another potentially dangerous aspect of driving in a pandemic is an increase in distractions. Beard said the AA is increasingly being made aware of people fiddling with masks and trying to apply hand sanitiser while driving, which potentially puts drivers in an unfocused state of mind.

This, Beard emphasised, is not a good time to be driving. 

“Link the SA driving story to that of our murder rate, GBV rate, crime rate, HIV/Aids incidence rates [and] trauma rates liked to alcohol abuse, and why should our driving culture be any different from any other aspect of our society,” Cunningham said. 

These factors compounded with a global pandemic, and morbid existing vehicle crash and road death statistics paves a bumpy road for South African drivers. 

Driver Assess hopes recognising risky driver behaviour can save lives, improve driver behaviour, and make the road a more pleasant, shared space.

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