Gridlock Guy: Atlanta traffic’s ‘riskiest hotspot’ and 2020′s high traffic fatality rate

Early on in the pandemic, traffic data firm INRIX released some stark, but unsurprising numbers in the decrease in traffic volume in the U.S. We also relayed in this column about the steep increase in bad crashes and recently followed up on that with GDOT. Now, over eight months into the commute-altering coronavirus, INRIX is out again with more sobering numbers about the overall risk of driving, some broader COVID-19 driving trends, and where the biggest risk areas on metro Atlanta’s freeways are.

In a lot of areas, not all, “Your evening commute looks a lot like it did last year, but maybe the morning commute is still pretty light,” INRIX’s Bob Pishue told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. The traffic data firm’s new study examines these trends in metro areas nationwide, while also analyzing the increasing danger on the roads. He said that overall traffic volume levels are close to normal, but the times of day and reasons traveled are different. The Work-From-Home-Effect continues.

INRIX’s Mark Burfiend noted in the same conversation that Seattle-based REI is foregoing a new corporate campus and setting up smaller satellite offices.

“To better handle these people commuting all over the region,” Burfiend explained. “We’re still kind of shaking out to see how the travel trends will be like when we’re back to ‘normal’.” Burfiend gave air quotes at that moment, signifying that some commuting trends may have forever changed.

An abnormal inevitability has been the sharp decrease in traffic volume in 2020, due to nationwide shut downs and shifts to teleworking. Despite far less vehicle miles traveled (VMT) - total number of miles each motorist drives - U.S. traffic fatality numbers decreased only three percent, compared to 2019, the INRIX study said.

And fatality rates, which INRIX and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) measured as the number of deaths per 100 million VMT, is up an astonishing 31% in the first half of 2020 versus the same 2019 period. There are 1.42 deaths per 100 million VMT in 2020; 2019 saw 1.08. 33 of 50 states and Washington D.C. have seen fatality rates increase this year on less-crowded roads.

“Obviously, speed plays a factor, whether it’s bad weather, or some kind of malfunction in a car, or a traffic jam - speed always plays a factor,” Pishue explained about why wrecks happen and why they can end up so severe. Atlanta’s speeds from April to July 2020 were 31% higher than the same period the year before. Those speeds were still 21% higher from August to October.

The study noted that the increase in the number of crashes on Metro Atlanta’s roads has outpaced VMT growth in the third quarter this year.

The biggest culprit in the rise in wrecks is speed. INRIX has also measured an increase in the amount of secondary crashes in the backups from initial ones. Freight trucks are especially likely to crash in traffic jams because they need longer to stop, Pishue said.

Pishue also noted that impaired driving, distracted driving, road maintenance, and road design are among other factors affecting crash-frequency and crash-severity. He explained that states have conflicting trends on drunk-driving, with some saying impaired-related crashes have gone down on the emptier roads and some reporting a surge of those wrecks.

INRIX’s study took crash data and adjusted it for the amount of volume on the road and came up with a rating for 25 metropolitan areas’ riskiest roads. The study does not measure the severity of wrecks in its definition of risk. This essentially measures the “chance for a collision on that road,” Pishue said.

Maybe not surprisingly, Pishue and his team found I-285 (the Perimeter) to be Atlanta’s riskiest road, with a 3.7 rating out of five. I-85 in Metro Atlanta was slightly less risky at 3.5, between Braselton and Newnan. I-75 within Metro Atlanta had the most collisions, though that is spread over 50 miles, from Acworth to Locust Grove.

Then INRIX drilled down to find the “riskiest hot spot” or as Pishue defined it, “Where are we registering the most collisions, at what intersection?” They found that the most crashes per VMT in Metro Atlanta is at I-20′s interchange with I-75/85 (the Downtown Connector). Considering the number of cars, transition ramps, nearby exits, quick decisions, and confusion, this may not be a surprise. INRIX’s findings only measure metro areas, but they predict that the riskiness of rural driving is higher in 2020 than in the recent past and for the same reasons. With a nationwide COVID-19 vaccine likely widely available soon, we may all soon know what a true “return to normal” is.

“The pandemic is going to be studied for a decade, at least in the transportation industry, because it has been unprecedented,” Pishue stated.

What hasn’t changed about driving is the importance of safety, consideration, and awareness. And those pillars are all the more important now and into 2021.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.