One of the positive side effects of Coronavirus lockdowns around the world was a dramatic decrease in traffic accidents. Though official statistics on traffic accidents, injuries, and fatalities in Canada are not yet available, a reduction in accidents certainly means a reduction in injuries, and the numbers we have already point to a reduction in deaths related to auto accidents. Insurance companies have cut rates across the country as drivers have stayed home and accident claims have decreased. During peak lockdown, traffic in Calgary was down by an average of 54%, and in Edmonton the decrease was 50% but the trend is reversing (see Fig.1 below). Now that COVID-19 restrictions across the country are being relaxed, will we see a spike in auto accidents and related injuries? The answer is, probably, but the size of the spike depends on a few factors.
Fig. 1: Apple Mobility Trends for Canada, February-June 2020, courtesy of Trevor Tombe
Canadian provinces have differing rates of COVID-19 infection, responses, and now reopening plans. In Alberta, there is a 3-stage plan, and we are currently in Stage 1. The Government has not yet announced the dates for further reopening; they are dependent on whether or not Coronavirus infection rates remain relatively stable. Should cases spike, Alberta may remain on Stage 1 or even return to full restrictions, all of which would affect traffic volume and therefore auto accidents (Update, as of June 12, 2020, Alberta has moved to Phase 2 of reopening).
Lack of Tourism
Alberta is high on the list of Canada’s desired destinations for foreign travelers, and it’s also a popular destination for Canadians. But with borders closed and travel severely limited even between provinces, both domestic and international tourism in Alberta will be significantly reduced, likely for the remainder of 2020. It is hard to predict the effect of this lack of tourism on Alberta auto accidents. The Alberta government has no plans to lift restrictions on non-essential interprovincial travel until the third and final stage of the reopening plan. Alberta’s reopening plans also make no specific mention of international travel, as that is the jurisdiction of the federal government. Ottawa has said that international non-US travel restrictions will remain in place until June 30, and the Canada-US border will remain closed until at least June 21. For the near future, it seems that tourism will not play any meaningful role in increasing traffic on Alberta roads.
More Volume, More Accidents?
As traffic increases, so do accidents. The relationship is not straightforward, however, as traffic and accidents do not increase at a steady rate in relation to each other; the rate of accidents increases faster than the volume of traffic. In other words, twice the traffic will give you more than twice the accidents. But does the type of traffic matter? Every summer, Alberta roads are usually filled with tourists heading to the Stampede or K-Days, taking in the scenery of the Canadian Rockies in Waterton or Banff, or even just passing through to BC or Saskatchewan. Most of these tourists are unfamiliar with our roads, and some are from places with very different driving styles or rules of the road. Given that tourists are probably at greater risk for a motor vehicle accident than locals, does this mean Alberta will see fewer auto accidents this year even if traffic volume increases to normal levels? The evidence suggests that will be the case.
It is too soon to tell if or when traffic volume across Alberta will return to normal levels for residents, but it is clear that tourism will be restricted for some time and the number of out-of-province drivers on Alberta roads will remain low. Albertans who have been on lockdown may feel the need or desire to drive more as we reopen, to catch up on errands, appointments, work, or social life. This may or may not compensate for any decreases in tourism-related traffic volume or auto accidents. Regardless of the cause or amount, as COVID-19 restrictions ease, traffic accidents will increase. As Albertans return to the roads they will be assuming this risk once again.