In Transit: With fewer cars on the roads in 2020, why did more people die in crashes?

  • Police investigate a fatal crash in St. Charles in June 2020. It was one of 1,062 crashes where one or more people were killed in Illinois in 2020, a 15.6% increase over 2019.

    Police investigate a fatal crash in St. Charles in June 2020. It was one of 1,062 crashes where one or more people were killed in Illinois in 2020, a 15.6% increase over 2019. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 2/18/2021 4:10 PM

In a year when thousands hunkered down at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people killed in traffic crashes spiked by 15.6% in Illinois.

And despite fewer vehicle trips, fatal crashes rose by 13%, the Illinois Department of Transportation reports.


Why is that?

"Generally speaking, when there is less traffic, there is a temptation to exceed the posted speed limit," Illinois State Police Deputy Sgt. Delila Garcia said, adding that the agency could not speculate on the 2020 numbers specifically. "The Illinois State Police is asking the motoring public to fight the temptation."

The state isn't alone. Across the U.S., miles traveled by vehicles dropped by 14.5% in the first nine months of 2020 compared to 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. But fatal crashes rose 4.6% nationwide January through September.

In Illinois, 1,166 people died in traffic crashes last year versus 1,009 in 2019. Fatal crashes totaled 1,062 in 2020, contrasted with 938 in 2019. IDOT's 2020 numbers are provisional.

"I think we are still in that speculative period and it will take some time for the complete data behind the numbers to emerge," IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. "But we do know anecdotally from law enforcement that speeding and reckless driving likely increased with deadly consequences during the pandemic."

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Traffic data company INRIX studied U.S. pandemic driving trends and found rush hour travel dropped by 31% in the Chicago region between April and July last year, compared to 2019, while speeds spiked by 29%.

INRIX researchers also found overall collisions, including nonfatal ones, decreased by 11% in that period.

"Collisions go down but the severity is going up," Northwestern University transportation expert Ian Savage said.

"It's not surprising because when volumes are down, congestion is down and people are driving faster," causing worse outcomes in crashes, explained Savage, a professor. "If you're in a collision with a pedestrian, that collision at 35 mph is much worse than at 25 mph."

Between August and October last year, rush hour traffic declined 18%, speeds went up 16% and collisions surpassed 2019 tallies by 4%, INRIX reported.

"It's not just the highways, it's the local roads we're concerned about," Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Executive Director Erin Aleman said. "Higher speeds on local arterial (roads) have led to an increase in pedestrian and bike fatalities."


Cyclist fatalities doubled from 12 in 2019 to 26 last year, Aleman said.

Not every data point fits a pattern, however. Illinois State Police issued 82,535 speeding tickets in 2020, almost 20,000 fewer than 2019's total of 102,052.

Crash fatalities investigated by the Lake County sheriff's office bucked the state trend, declining from 20 deaths in 2019 to 14 deaths in 2020.

"In both years, most of the fatal crashes were attributed to alcohol being the primary cause of the crash," said Lt. Christopher Covelli.

The 30% decrease is due in large part to Sheriff John Idleburg's creation of a Specialized Traffic Enforcement Unit in 2020 following three years of investigators responding to 85 catastrophic vehicle crashes, Covelli said. Unit officers pinpointed "speeding hot spots," and issued more than 1,300 traffic citations with 48 DUI arrests.

CMAP has gathered a panel with county engineers, IDOT and Illinois tollway officials, AAA, AARP, the trucking industry and community advocates to find solutions to reduce crashes. The group first met Jan. 26 and will issue recommendations in 2022.

"We want to build a culture of safety in the region," Aleman said.

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 vaccinations inch forward, so will traffic congestion as we slowly creep toward relative normalcy.

That may help cut serious crashes as "the more people on roads, the more constraint on bad behavior by the riskiest drivers," Savage said.

Garcia advised, "Slow down and pay attention to the road so first responders don't have to respond to an accident or stop the motoring public for speeding."

Got an opinion about pandemic driving? Drop an email to

You should know

Delta Air Lines will continue to block middle seats on airplanes through April 30 to provide more space for travelers amid the pandemic. It's a unique feature not offered by other major carriers such as United and American Airlines. "We'll continue to reassess seat blocking in relation to case transmission and vaccination rates," Delta Chief Customer Experience Officer Bill Lentsch said in a statement. The airline also has information on COVID-19 rules in foreign countries at

One more thing

How about a clock tower? Elmhurst is remaking its Metra station and wants suggestions from commuters about the design. There's a virtual public information meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday or you can share your architectural vision by survey through Feb. 28. To learn more go to

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