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Has the pandemic made drivers lose their minds?

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Utah Highway Patrol troopers investigate a road rage shooting that left two people injured on I-15 in Lehi on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A few days ago, in the early hours along I-15 near Lehi, two pickup trucks began swerving at each other amid morning commuter traffic. Five men were in one truck, while the driver was alone in the other.

Regardless of what started the confrontation, the two cars became increasingly aggressive toward each other as other drivers tried to move out of the way. By the time it ended, two people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and the truck with the lone driver had crashed into a concrete barrier, according to the Deseret News.

It was, in other words, just another day on pandemic highways. Some of you — much more than the normal easy-to-ignore fringe, it turns out — are not happy campers since the coronavirus began changing things.

COVID-19 certainly didn’t bring on the advent of road rage, reckless driving and other highway ills. Those things likely rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line along with the first Model T. But it has made them far worse. At least, it’s hard to not make that connection.

The elusive question is, why? The next question is, will we return to a calmer mode once the pandemic ends? 

But first, some facts. In the past 10 months or so, people have been driving a lot less and dying a lot more in accidents. They also tend to be more angry behind the wheel than they used to be.

It’s happening all across the United States, and in Utah, as well. A chart published by the Utah Department of Transportation shows a dramatic decrease in combined vehicle miles traveled by state residents in 2020, from about 32.9 billion miles in 2019 to about 26.3 billion. But the rate of fatal accidents per 100 miles took a dramatic jump upward, from 0.75 in 2019 to 0.98 in 2020. This, despite years of declining fatality rates.

That is “just shocking,” Highway Patrol Lt. Nick Street told me, especially considering how roadways were less congested than normal. He added that the UHP recorded 31 incidents of either attempted assault or the threatened use of a deadly weapon in association with road rage during 2020, compared with 16 the year before.

Street also said the UHP issued 5,139 citations in 2020 for people driving over 100 mph, compared to 3,773 in 2019.

In an open letter to drivers this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cited a report showing a 22% increase in the median speed of drivers in selected metropolitan areas, as well as that 65% of drivers who end up in trauma centers after serious accidents tested positive for drugs or alcohol during 2020. In April alone, the letter said, the number of people ejected from vehicles during crashes was double the average, showing that people aren’t buckling up.

“Many of us are under stress — and understandably so,” the letter said. 

But is that really an excuse? Are we so upset by people telling us to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart that we need to imitate NASCAR to blow off steam? Are hand sanitizer fumes and cramped home offices inducing us to remove seat belts and approach daily chores like an invading army?

Some experts say the pandemic has given us an “empathy deficit.” Writing in Scientific American, Northeastern University psychology professor emeritus Judith Hall and Duke University professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience Mark Leary write that people naturally want others to see and understand the pain they are enduring. 

“But opportunities to give and receive empathy feel less than adequate these days: decreased social interaction, online get-togethers, air hugs and masked conversations are not quite up to the task — and people are often so preoccupied with their own struggles that they aren’t as attuned to other people’s problems as they otherwise might be.”

On top of that, “everyone is confronted with people who seem indifferent.” 

I imagine this is true whether you’re a mask wearer who laments that others won’t wear one, or someone who won’t wear a mask and can’t stand those who do. 

Writing for kevinmd.com, Dr. Cristina Carballo-Perelman cites “evidence suggesting an increase in an ‘everyone for themselves’ attitude, which negatively impacts the health and wellbeing of others.”

Good explanations. Yet, somehow, I can’t imagine people who readily resort to a gun on the highway as being upset with too many Zoom meetings. Nor do they seem the kind who, absent COVID-19 in the air, would be attuned to other people’s troubles.

They may, however, be dealing with other types of stresses and dysfunction brought on by it all. 

Most people, thank goodness, won’t give in to fleeting urges toward violence or other bad behavior. But a buildup in general stress levels may trigger those who do have trouble keeping things inside.

The answer to the other question — will we return to normal driving patterns when this is over? — is anybody’s guess.