For anyone still on the road during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, the lack of traffic made it seem as if we had experienced a time shift, back to a bygone age of motoring. The roads were so quiet.
Data from the Office of National Statistics confirms that, at the start of lockdown, 23 March 2020, the use of cars in GB fell to just 22% of the level during the equivalent day in the first week of February 2020. (ie comparing Monday with Monday, Tuesday with Tuesday etc).
To understand what the usual traffic volumes are in the first quarter of the year, in the absence of a global pandemic, Department for Transport (DfT) figures tell us that, in GB in Q1 2019, the provisional traffic volume arising from car travel was 60.8 billion car miles over the quarter.
Traffic volumes are calculated from the number of cars on the road multiplied by the mileage of those cars. Since, at the end of June 2018 there were 31.8 million private cars on the roads of GB, the 60.8 billion figure corresponds to an average annual mileage of just over 7600 miles. Exactly in line with current estimates. (Annual mileage has fallen over recent years as the number of cars on the road has increased, the mileage per car has fallen).
Given traffic volume at the outset of the COVID-19 lockdown were just 22% of the equivalent week in February 2020 and assuming the traffic volume to be similar to the average week during Q1 2019, then the figure for the number of cars on the roads during the quietest period of lockdown is 22% of (60,800,000,000/1900) or 7million cars.[1900 being the average mileage during the quarter].
How far back do we have to go to find traffic at this level?
Again, DfT figures provide the answer and, amazingly, you would have to time travel back to 1963 to find roads as quiet as we found them at the end of March and early April 2020.
It is already clear that traffic volumes are now averaging around 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels. As children return to school and many parents return to their workplace, will the changes in our motoring habits prove to be just a blip?
As we have seen, car usage dropped sharply during the early months of lockdown so it might be expected that accidents, serious injury and fatalities on the roads of GB would also have decreased. In the immediate aftermath of lockdown, headlines spoke of “Huge drop in car crashes as drivers stay at home …”. Following the first easing of lockdown, the headline “Car accident rates climb sharply …. “, became typical of early July.
In many parts of the country, the number of motorists exceeding the speed limit increased in the quiet period on our roads. During the first month of lockdown, Greater Manchester Police reported 6,200 motorists exceeding the speed limit; an increase of 57%. What effect did this have on accident statistics?
Cycling and walking were encouraged and these pedestrians and cyclists, some new and inexperienced, shared road space with motorists. In the first month of lockdown, tragically, 14 cyclists were killed on the roads of GB (plus one in Northern Ireland) compared with a 3-year average of under 7 for the corresponding month since 2016.
In truth, it is too early to forecast how the current year will turn out. In 1963, with 7 million cars on the roads, there were 6,922 fatalities in GB. Since 2012, the number of fatalities has remained stubbornly between 1,700 and 1,800, after falling steadily over the years preceding 2012. It seems possible that 2020 could see a departure from that flat line: but which way? We will have to wait and hope.
Finally, research at the University of York has found that air pollution also fell during lockdown. There are many reasons for this; they range from industrial inactivity to less airline and maritime transport. Specifically associated with motor transport, however, nitrogen dioxide levels in major cities have seen falls ranging from 30% to 48% giving us a glimpse of what we may expect as the ban on new petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles comes into force from 2035.