DES MOINES — Iowa is on the road to fewer traffic fatalities this year as the coronavirus pandemic slows travel and reduces crashes — which could result in the lowest highway death toll in nearly a century.
As of Friday, 130 people this year have died in crashes on Iowa roads, a level down 35 from the same period last year. For all of 2019, the state recorded 336 traffic fatalities.
Dennis Kleen, the state Department of Transportation official who tracks data on highway-related deaths, said March, April, May and June saw lower death tolls “when things were shut down and people were sitting at home.”
But traffic patterns in July are starting to return to normal as the state reopens since Gov. Kim Reynolds eased COVID-19 restrictions.
“There’s a lot less traffic,” noted Kleen, who said Iowa’s highway fatality count at this point is hovering around historic lows based on data dating to 1925 — the only year the annual toll dipped below 300, with 261 deaths that year.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen,” Kleen said, but added, “This might be the year that we could get under 300.”
By contrast, Iowa’s peak year for traffic deaths was 912 in 1970.
Vehicle counts on Iowa roads, streets and interstates fell by 44 percent in mid-April compared with the previous year as much of the state shut down in the pandemic. They have slowly rebuilt since then to near normal but are still lower, said Stuart Anderson, director of Iowa DOT’s planning, programming and modal division. Truck traffic has fluctuated as well but generally has stayed steady to slightly higher than previous years, according to Iowa DOT statistics.
The number of total vehicle crashes per month was down strikingly since COVID-19 first was confirmed March 8 in Iowa.
State records show 2,954 crashes took place in March, compared with 4,031 the year before. By April, the gap was 1,667 lower and 1,563 in May. But June’s 3,790 collisions was down less — by 864 — compared with June 2019’s total of 4,604.
Jeff Von Brown, team leader of modeling, forecasting and telemetrics in the Iowa DOT’s systems planning bureau, said “we’re definitely seeing a reduction in traffic” since mid-March compared to last year, with a 60 percent drop during the Easter Sunday season due in part to the combination of inclement weather and COVID-19 concerns.
“Since that low point, we’ve slowly crept our way back up,” he said. “We’ve been sitting at about 15 to 20 percent fewer vehicles on the road for the past four or five weeks or so. There’s a lasting reduction. When will we get back to normal and maybe even positive? It’s hard to tell. We’re still in a very unclear situation with the pandemic itself, as well as life has changed for a lot of people — working from home and how people feel comfortable about going out.”
COVID-19 effects have played havoc with transportation financial norms. State revenue from fuel taxes and vehicle sales has dropped, causing uncertainty for some highway construction plans. The reduced vehicle traffic and safer roads have resulted in some temporary insurance rate rollbacks. But the travel industry is feeling the effects of fewer hotels bookings and car rentals in the midst of what usually is the height of summer vacation and travel season.
Many Americans are “still taking a wait-and-see attitude” when it comes to travel, said Mark Peterson, AAA spokesman for the Iowa-Minnesota area.
Many of those plans are being done cautiously and “more spur of the moment,” according to the association that forecast Americans would take 700 million trips from July through September based upon economic indicators and state re-openings that are subject to change.
“That’s off about 15 percent,” Peterson noted. “That’s the first decline in summer travel since 2009.”
That comes at a time gas prices are favorable for consumers — averaging $2.20 a gallon nationally and $2.10 in Iowa, which was about 50 cents per gallon lower than last year, he noted.
Car trips remain the favorite mode of transportation, Peterson said, primarily due to flexibility in scheduling and the ability to social distance.
The less-congested roadways, however, have brought with them an increase in the number of people driving in excess of 100 mph. A 113 percent spike in the number of speed citations for 100 mph or greater and a 70 percent jump in citations for motorists traveling in excess of 25 mph over the limit prompted Iowa State Patrol officials to join their counterparts from Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas in launch an enforcement crackdown.
Along with the good news that diesel tax receipts remain strong with the steady truck traffic, there is bad news — heavy vehicles take a toll on the condition of the highway system at a time overall transportation funds are down.
Anderson has indicated that short-term revisions in the state’s highway construction plans could be required.
Revenue flowing into the state’s road use tax fund is projected to decline by $100 million through October because the coronavirus has disrupted Iowans’ travel and vehicle purchasing patterns.
Iowa DOT officials say significant across-the-board construction cost increases have forced them to revise many project estimates and limit the funding available for new projects, while a few projects have been delayed by one year from the schedule identified in a previous five-year plan.