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December 13, 2022

TOPS Lab hopes to slow down pandemic-fueled distracted, impaired driving in Wisconsin

Written By: Alex Holloway

Traffic plunged across the United States at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.

Wisconsin’s traffic followed this trend, too, plummeting along with total crashes. Paradoxically, even with fewer drivers on the road, vehicle fatalities rose.

There were 551 road fatalities in 2019, according to preliminary data maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety (TOPS) Laboratory. In 2020, that jumped to 592 fatalities, and in 2021, the number increased again to 595 deaths. Going into fall 2022, that troubling trend seemed to be holding; there were 391 fatalities on Wisconsin’s roads through August 2022, compared to 366 for the same period in 2021.

Andrea Bill
Andrea Bill

The problem isn’t limited to Wisconsin. In September 2022, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pleaded with motorists to be careful while sharing “devastating” preliminary traffic fatality figures from the first quarter of 2022. Nationwide, more than 9,500 people died in crashes — 7% higher than the same period in 2021.

Now, researchers at the TOPS Lab hope to gain insight into the behaviors fueling this trend through a new study to clarify the prevalence of distracted or impaired driving in crashes on Wisconsin’s roads.

The work will allow officials and traffic engineers to employ a Safe System approach to addressing those behaviors, including educational outreach programs, improvements in road design or adjusting how vehicles interact with drivers and their devices.

While there is readily available data for impaired driving, it can be hard to quantify the role distractions—whatever form they may take—play in causing serious crashes.

“The idea of distracted driving isn’t new, whether it’s thinking about what you have to do for the day, or kids making noise in the back seat or looking at your cell phone,” says Andrea (Andi) Bill, associate director of the TOPS Lab. “It’s a very difficult problem to understand, but until we know what types of distraction are causing these crashes and where they’re occurring, we can’t know how to solve it.”

That difficulty is compounded because distracted driving data often relies on self-reporting from motorists involved in crashes. In some cases, warrants to access cell phone data can offer insight into the moments before a crash. Some cars that allow users to connect their phones also track activity.

Bill says the TOPS Lab team wants to determine whether impaired or distracted driving is under- or overreported in Wisconsin. If officials have good, accurate data to lean on, then the state can take steps to reverse the trend of rising deaths and eliminate preventable traffic fatalities.

“Our mission at the TOPS Lab is to make Wisconsin’s roads safer,” Bill says. “With COVID, we saw impaired driving go up. We saw distracted driving go up. We saw those types of risky behaviors increase, and this will help us get a better understanding of how we can address those increases in fatal crashes.”

The TOPS Lab will collaborate with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, which conducts toxicology testing, and will draw on hospital data and other datasets housed on the WisTransPortal System. The lab will also work with engineering firm VHB and with Xiao Qin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is funding the project through a three-year, $450,000 grant.