On Austin's Empty Streets, Drivers Find A Need To Speed

Apr 8, 2020

Austin’s streets are far less congested these days as people stay home to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Law enforcement is worried some drivers are taking empty streets as an invitation to speed, though – with dangerous results.

Preliminary numbers show the number of traffic crashes were down 20% in March compared to January and February 2020. The number of serious injuries caused by crashes, however, was up 15% – despite traffic volumes being down by as much as half compared to the first week of February.

"With crashes being down, you would expect that proportion to go down as well for the serious injuries," Lewis Leff, the city's transportation safety officer, said. "But we're not quite seeing that.”

He said when drivers go 10, 15, even 20 miles faster than posted speed limits – especially when there's not much congestion – the severity of injuries can be a lot worse.

While Austin Police have scaled back some field operations, they continue to enforce traffic violations that are considered hazardous, such as excessive speeding and distracted driving. Leff said the Austin Transportation Department is changing traffic signal timing on key corridors like Airport Boulevard so lights change quicker – but that also means drivers hit red lights more often.

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office is also continuing to investigate cases.

“I've been on the phone with detectives throughout the past couple of weeks, while we've all been in this kind of shelter-in-place situation, working on cases that happened previously, working on new traffic fatalities that unfortunately continue to happen, so those efforts are still continuing unchanged,” Matthew Foye, a prosecutor with the Vehicular Crimes Special Prosecutions Unit, said.

Foye and Leff said the time and resources spent responding to crashes takes away from the response to the health crisis.

“Every crash takes an ambulance away from somebody else who might need it for COVID-19. It takes away possibly a hospital bed and other resources,” Foye said. “So driving safely, keeping your speed down, is part of this community effort that we were all engaged in to get through this current crisis.”

The trend is also being seen nationally. According to an NPR report, Allstate Insurance said while it’s seeing fewer crashes, they tend to be more severe.

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