Stress Levels Are High, and It’s Making Roads Dangerous

Our roads have become increasingly treacherous, if local news reports are to be believed. Every morning, we see and hear anchors and reporters talking about car crashes all over Chicago. We’ve witnessed a few ourselves.

Turns out, Chicago isn’t an outlier; the whole country has been affected. The recent surge in car accidents in the United States, as reported by The New York Times, can be attributed to a complex interplay of several factors, including health, colliding social dynamics, and behavioral factors. Drivers are more stressed out than ever, and we’re seeing the effect on our roads.

The pandemic and stress

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on various aspects of daily life, including its unforeseen consequences on road safety. The widespread disruptions caused by lockdowns, remote work transitions, and shifts in societal behavior have collectively contributed to an altered landscape on our roads. One significant factor is the increase in reckless driving and speeding incidents. With fewer vehicles on the road during lockdowns, some drivers took advantage of the emptier streets to engage in dangerous behaviors, leading to a surge in speeding-related accidents. That surge has continued even as the number of cars on the roads has increased. Per 2023 data compiled in the Chicago Data Portal, there were 227,321 car crashes where “exceeds speed limits” was listed as a cause of the accident; in 2022, there were 220,577.

Additionally, the pandemic brought about heightened stress levels and anxiety for many individuals. Financial uncertainties, health concerns, and the overall disruption of normal routines created an environment where some drivers exhibited aggressive behaviors behind the wheel. Road rage incidents became more prevalent as the frustrations of the pandemic spilled onto the roads, further jeopardizing the safety of everyone on the streets.

A senior researcher at the Accident Research Center at Monash University in Australia, Amanda Stephens, is the lead author of a paper called “Self-Reported Changes in Aggressive Driving Within the Past Five Years and During Covid-19.”

Most drivers, Stephens notes, were encountering more hostility on the roads than they did before the pandemic. Nearly 80 percent of respondents to her survey reported an uptick in “shouting, cursing or making rude gestures,” and nearly 35 percent reported a surge in incidents in which one driver attempts to cause “actual damage” to another vehicle. This matches the few unscientific studies conducted in the United States, like a 2020 survey from the insurance-comparison website the Zebra, in which 82 percent of people reported engaging in road rage or aggressive driving. (Five percent reported bumping or ramming another vehicle on purpose.)

The pandemic is only one of the social stressors that increased the amount of aggressive driving on the road. The climate of social tension has permeated various aspects of daily life, including the way people navigate the roads. Commuters and drivers, already grappling with the challenges of the pandemic, may find themselves more prone to frustration and impatience. This heightened emotional state, exacerbated by broader societal conflicts, has added to the uptick in aggressive driving behaviors.

Our smartphones are turning us into addicts, and it affects our driving

The advent of smartphones has undeniably transformed the way we live, but it has also ushered in a concerning era for road safety as distracted driving has become increasingly prevalent. The allure of constant connectivity and the need to stay digitally engaged have led to a surge in smartphone use behind the wheel, contributing to a significant increase in distracted driving incidents. The addictive nature of smartphones has made it challenging for individuals to resist the urge to glance at their screens, even when driving at high speeds. (Nomophobia – fear of being without our cell phones and smart devices – is real, and it’s stressing young people out all over the world.) The consequences of this distracted driving epidemic are evident in the rising number of accidents attributed to such behaviors, ranging from minor fender benders to severe, sometimes fatal, crashes. The Times article notes that “more than 32,000 Americans were killed in wrecks caused by distracted driving between 2012 and 2021, with a roughly 11 percent increase in the number of deaths from 2020 to 2021.”

The Chicago Data Portal doesn’t have an option for distracted driving, but it does have an option for cell phone use. In 2022, 233,824 people were involved in vehicle wrecks involving cell phone use. In 2023, that number increased to 245,062.

Bigger cars are contributing to accidents

The growing popularity of larger vehicles, such as SUVs and pickup trucks, has brought about a shift in the dynamics of road safety, raising concerns about increased danger on our roadways. The surge in the preference for larger vehicles is influenced by factors like perceived safety, comfort, and a desire for versatility. Driving larger cars makes us feel safer, thus reducing our stress behind the wheel. However, this trend has notable implications for overall road safety.

One of the primary concerns stems from the sheer size and weight of SUVs and pickup trucks. “New cars are stronger and less prone to spontaneously exploding, but they’re also taller and heavier — pickup trucks have added an average of 1,300 pounds of curb weight since 1990, while the average full-size S.U.V. now weighs around 5,000 pounds, at least a thousand pounds more than the mid-century sedan,” writes Shaer. These vehicles, while providing a sense of security to their occupants, can pose a greater threat to smaller vehicles and pedestrians in the event of a collision. The mismatch in size and weight can result in more severe consequences for those involved in accidents with larger vehicles.

Moreover, the elevated design of SUVs and trucks can affect visibility for both drivers of these vehicles and those around them. Blind spots may be larger, increasing the likelihood of accidents when changing lanes or making turns. Pedestrians and cyclists may find themselves at a higher risk due to reduced visibility, especially in urban environments where larger vehicles dominate the road.

The propensity for larger vehicles to cause more significant damage in accidents is also a concern. Collisions involving SUVs and trucks often result in greater force, leading to a higher likelihood of serious injuries and fatalities. This impact is particularly significant when considering the vulnerability of occupants in smaller cars during such incidents.

While certain actions are being taken to decrease traffic accidents, such as the Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program, it is still important to drive carefully and defensively whether you’re driving to work, to school, or across the country. With car accidents proving to be more dangerous, leaving victims with more serious injuries than ever, it is important to understand what you can do if you find yourself in such a crash.

Finding an experienced Chicago car accident lawyer can help ensure that if you are seriously injured in a collision, that you are not stuck paying the medical bills for injuries that are not your fault. At Gainsberg Law, our experienced legal team wants to help you. We will focus on navigating the complex legal process, including collecting evidence and handling insurance companies, while you focus on healing. To discuss your options, schedule a free consultation by calling us at our Chicago office, or using our contact page. We proudly serve those throughout Cook County.