Roads around Philadelphia are quiet and empty. But then, out of nowhere, comes the loud vrroom of a speeding car that whizzes by, then disappears.
It’s a sound all too many have gotten used to. As stay-at-home orders have slowed some aspects of normal life, recklessness on the roads roars unabated.
Mayor Jim Kenney recently said traffic safety violations have "increasingly become a dangerous side effect of the stay-at-home order.”
Three traffic crashes killed people in the first week of May alone, whereas only two had fatalities in April, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. A man in a stolen car allegedly driving recklessly caused a deadly tractor-trailer crash on the Schuylkill Expressway last week, Pennsylvania state police said.
While a month doesn’t make a trend, said Kelley Yemen, Philadelphia’s director of Complete Streets, officials are “alarmed by” the cluster of traffic fatalities, knowing there are so many fewer cars on the road. The city has a goal of zero traffic deaths by 2030 through Vision Zero, its safe streets initiative.
"These stats are trending in the wrong direction, and this unsafe behavior has to stop,” Kenney said.
State police have seen more serious crashes as well. Total DUI arrests and accidents are down amid the coronavirus-caused traffic slowdown, according to department figures. But more serious crashes that send drivers to the hospital seem to be up, said Trooper William Butler, although the police force doesn’t track crash severity.
Butler identified I-95 and I-76 as problem areas, where motorists are speeding at 75 to 80 mph on average.
Across the river in New Jersey, Cherry Hill Police Chief William “Bud” Monaghan has noticed an increase in speeding, too, especially on major highways.
“People are taking the liberty to go a little faster,” he said. “I think there’s a feeling that police are tied up with other issues.”
What some drivers might interpret as officers’ preoccupation, departments see as keeping their officers safe. In the western suburbs, some counties have cut down on issuing speeding tickets, wanting fewer close interactions between police and people over minor infractions.
In Radnor, Lt. Shawn Dietrich said the department’s highway patrol unit has suspended speed enforcement details. If officers stop a driver, they generally issue warnings.
In Chester County, the Phoenixville Police Department saw 16 traffic accidents over the first 12 days of May, a marked uptick from the “handful” reported in all of April, said Sgt. Joe Nemic.
As more people take to the roads compared with April, Nemic said, he’s not sure whether drivers are more distracted due to the pandemic or “they’re just rusty after sitting at home."
Along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, residents say it’s not just cars that are driving recklessly. When the stay-at-home order took effect, the revving of racing motorcycle engines went from being an occasional nuisance to a shutdown staple.
“When it’s going on, there’s no possibility of thinking, talking on the phone, watching TV, doing anything,” said Harriet Cohen Williams, 78, who owns a condominium at the Philadelphian. Outside her window, she said, the Parkway “has become a racetrack.”
Philadelphian residents have formed an ad hoc task force, with residents such as Charles Layton, 80, extensively researching the motorcycle noise laws of other cities and states. More than 1,200 people have signed a petition asking authorities to enforce existing traffic laws and institute temporary measures to encourage safe driving.
Authorities are working to address the issue, the residents said, and some recent nights have been quiet.
Some cities have shuttered streets to create outdoor spaces for safer social distancing.
“We’ve looked at this off and on for a long time...,” Managing Director Brian Abernathy said last week, “but at this point, we just don’t see what problem we’re trying to solve by closing additional streets.”
Randy LoBasso, policy director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, disagreed.
“There are ways that we can restructure infrastructure to make it so people don’t get pulled over and don’t get tickets, and that’s what we need to focus on,” he said, “and I think with the streets as empty as they are right now, it’s an easy way to sort of try things out and see what could work in the long term.”