Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Pedestrian Deaths and Pandemic Madness

Even though Americans have driven a lot less during the pandemic, fatal traffic accidents have risen. The rate of pedestrian death is up 5%, which is 21% if you calculate it by miles driven. The NY Times has a grim story about this today, which started me wondering again about what the pandemic is doing to us. Of course it might be mainly a matter of lighter traffic leading to higher speeds, or to trends that go back decades, like more Americans driving trucks and SUVs. But some people see a shift in mood:

Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, said many drivers were grappling with what he calls “salience saturation.”

“We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” Dr. Spiegel said. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”

Dr. Spiegel said another factor was “social disengagement,” which deprives people of social contact, a major source of pleasure, support and comfort. Combine that loss with overloading our capacity to gauge risks, Dr. Spiegel said, and people are not paying as much attention to driving safely.

“If they do, they don’t care about it that much,” Dr. Spiegel said. “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.” . . .

“There’s a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated, enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. “We in our vehicles are given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.”

Something like the “trucker” protests in Canada points in the same direction: people are fed up, cranky, and not prone to worry about the consequences of their actions. Being behind the wheel of a big vehicle may intensify this sort of mood, making people feel isolated from other humans and their own responsibility.

As I said, I am not sure there is much to this. But if there is, it provides a fascinating glimpse into human society and what ties us together. Does reducing human contact lead to caring less about other people? Or just to a foul mood?

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