By Shereen Siewert

Despite a sharp decrease in the number of miles Wisconsin residents drove in 2020, fatal crashes increased significantly and police report ticketing more drivers for traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

At this time last year, shortly after Gov. Tony Evers issued his first Safer at Home order, roads were nearly empty statewide. According to the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation, the state saw fewer crashes overall and traffic volumes that were down by as much as half in April 2020. Even in late November traffic volume remained at about 25% below pre-pandemic numbers.

But in 2020, Wisconsin reported 598 traffic fatalities, up 48 from the year before, according to DOT figures.

One reason state officials are pointing to is an increase in risky driving behavior since the onset of the pandemic. In a Nov. 11 podcast, state DOT secretary-designee Craig Thompson and superintendent of the State Patrol Tony Burrell speculated that risk-averse people were more likely to take stay-at-home recommendations to heart and refrained from going anywhere, while “there are those who are less risk-averse and have engaged in behaviors such as not wearing seat belts, speeding and driving while impaired and that creates the challenges and the issues that we’re seeing out there with fatalities.”

A perfect storm

Transportation officials say that the pandemic created something of a “perfect storm” from a road safety standpoint.

Open roads with little traffic tempted speeders to step on the gas. At the same time, police reduced traffic enforcement in some areas for two reasons: low traffic volumes and reduced arrests for minor offenses to protect the health of officers, according to a government survey. And many places, including Marathon County, saw a sharp rise in drug and alcohol use, which public health officials theorize are linked to stress, boredom, the lack of a regular schedule and limited access to treatment and counseling programs.

Weekly reports from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department show an uptick in the number of high-speed traffic tickets as well. Over the past week, sheriff’s officials report four citations, including one on Tuesday involving a 35-year-old Wausau man. Police say he was traveling at 102 mph on Hwy. 51 south of Tomahawk when he was arrested. Then on Thursday, a 54-year-old Rhinelander woman was cited for driving 94 mph on the same highway, this time near Irma.

A 19-year-old Athens man was cited early Saturday morning for several offenses after a deputy stopped him at 90 mph on Hwy. 51 at Irma. In addition to the speeding ticket, the man was cited for driving while suspended and violating an instruction permit restriction.

Thompson, citing national statistics, said people appear to be more likely to drive while under the influence since the pandemic began. Monday’s report from the Marathon County Jail shows three people who were arrested over the weekend on felony, fourth-offense drunken driving charges.

When driving at high speeds, crashes are more likely to occur and more deadly when they do, research shows. Overall, for more than two decades, speeding has been a contributing factor in about one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities.

So, speeding is not a new problem, but it’s gotten worse during the pandemic.  

“Though speed management has been a problem for decades, speeding became even more acute during the Covid-19 pandemic, as less traffic has prompted some motorists to drive at high speeds on highways and city streets across the nation,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said in a statement.

In addition to lost lives, there’s a financial aspect to consider. The cost of speed-related crashes nationwide amounts to nearly $52 billion annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.