The Influence of COVID-19 Policies on Driving Patterns


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National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence


This study sought to investigate the impact of government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions and mandates on driving behavior and patterns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia by examining the pre-restriction (pre-pandemic), restriction (stay-at-home period), and post-restriction (Summer 2020) time periods. Data from 21 vehicles in the VTTI L2 NDS study shaped the investigation. The data encompassed 11,973 trips over 145,000 km (~90,000 miles) and 3,600 data-hours (~5 data-months) of driving. To facilitate the analysis, the vehicle data were split into three separate periods (i.e., pre-pandemic, stay-at-home, and Summer 2020) anchored by three key times in the pandemic’s progression within Virginia’s COVID-19 timeframe. Results showed fluctuations, primarily in the driving exposure, during the pandemic. Changes were most extreme during the stay-at-home period. Moreover, some altered behaviors, particularly those related to driving exposure and trip intent, did not entirely return to their pre-pandemic levels by COVID-19’s 1-year mark. Driving-exposure-related variables revealed the most striking effects; all driver exposure variables changed between the pre-pandemic and stay-at-home periods. Results suggested that trips taken during the stay-at-home period were shorter and briefer, were proportionately fewer in the morning or on weekends, and more commonly involved residential roads. Driving style variables showed other differences, most notably, an increased percentage of speeding mileage between the pre-pandemic and stay-at-home periods. Destination type distributions also changed significantly across the three time periods. For example, “unknown” destinations, indicative of locations with diverse arrays of business types, were more prevalent in the Summer 2020 period than during the stay-at-home period. This change was also observable across all the control periods. While the results do not identify definitive causal factors behind traffic fatality and fatality rate increases, the results inform their discussion. First, drastic changes in the driving exposure occurred during the different pandemic periods. Some of these changes were also accompanied by changes in the driving style. Second, results do not support speeding as the only risk factor for these observed safety issues. While speeds did change, the pandemic simultaneously shifted driving distributions by roadway type. These different driving environments may have played a role in increased traffic fatalities. Third, these observed changes, particularly salient between the pre-pandemic and stay-at-home periods, were not completely elastic; that is, the changes did not fully revert after restrictions were eased.



transportation safety, naturalistic driving study, COVID-19, driver behavior