LISTEN: American roads are becoming more dangerous, according to Decatur resident Matthew Shaer, who wrote about the phenomenon for The New York Times. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Shaer about his research into America's deadly roads.

A downed speed monitor lies along Abercorn Street in Savannah's Ardsley Park neighborhood.

A downed speed monitor lies along Abercorn Street in Savannah's Ardsley Park neighborhood — emblematic of how increasingly unsafe driving has become in America.

Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

American roads are becoming more dangerous. Traffic deaths have risen since the pandemic, despite vehicle safety features such as seatbelts, lane assists and backup cameras becoming more prevalent, bike lanes encouraging drivers to trade four wheels for two, and ubiquitous traffic cameras. Matthew Shaer, a Decatur resident and journalist writing for The New York Times, recently looked into why American drivers are so deadly. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.



Peter Biello: You write about a lot of factors that contribute to the rise in deaths on the road, but one stands out. It's the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about the lingering effects of what one of your sources referred to as "collective trauma?"

Matthew Shaer: This is something that's still being studied. Research is still being conducted on it. But we know from the research that is already out there that Americans in the past three years and still active now are more anxious, more stressed out, more scared than they've been in decades. And it's attributable to the COVID pandemic. It's also attributable to political division, to fear about the economy, to fear about politics. And it all adds up to this situation where we are collectively not our best, right? We are collectively worried. We are collectively anxious about our future. And this applies to all different parts of our life. It's not just our driving. As a source said to me when I was reporting this, people didn't used to get in physical altercations with flight attendants on a regular basis. And now that seems to be a kind of regular feature on the nightly news.

But our cars are different because — a few different reasons. One, we spend so much time in them. I mean, if you're in Atlanta especially, you spend a lot of time in your car. Atlantans drive everywhere we go. There's also this sort of thing that happens when we're in a car where we're walled off from people, right? We're seeing vehicles as opposed to the people driving them. It's my personal belief that sometimes if we pull up next to someone and could look them in the eye, or we can internalize that there's a human being behind the wheel, our anger can dissipate. But until that happens, it really does bring out the worst in us.

Peter Biello: Cars have become safer over the years. Seatbelts weren't always ubiquitous, and now technology like backup cameras and sensors that can detect when a driver's eyes are on the road or not — those things are more common. But it seems like these technological safeguards haven't really held the line on traffic deaths.

Matthew Shaer: It was fascinating to me doing ... the historical research. In the '60s, in the '70s, in the U.S. — before I was born, my parents’ generation — cars were notoriously unsafe, right? Like the roofs would cave in, gas tanks would explode. What's interesting about this, and sort of a little dismaying about thinking back to that time, is that that problem was almost like — it's not that it was easier to solve, but that you could solve it by legislation. You could force auto manufacturers to make the cars safer. It's much harder to get people to drive more safely. And this is sort of the second crisis that we're going through right now, which is a behavioral crisis. Yes, cars are safer, but those aren't enough to make up for the fact that people are behaving more badly than they have in a very long time.

Peter Biello: By badly, you mean people are angrier, as you mentioned, but they're also distracted and they can use their phones while they drive, even if it is against the law. And that could really harm their ability to drive safely.

Matthew Shaer: Distraction is a huge part of it. It is. And ... anecdotally, I'm sure listeners have plenty of their own stories of seeing people driving around while on a smartphone or on a tablet. It's a big problem.

Peter Biello: What about rural Georgia? You spoke with a University of Georgia researcher about rural driving habits in this state. Tell us a little bit about what she was looking at and what she found.

Matthew Shaer: Yeah. You do have to break down the different types of driving that you're thinking about, because in in urban areas, crashes can be deadly. They can often involve lots of vehicles. In rural areas, it's predominantly cars going off the road. It's the operator of the vehicle who — who gets injured. And what these researchers found is that part of it is self-evident: that we have to drive. We, we live in a country now where you have to drive everywhere you go. And if you live in a rural area, that's especially true: school, work, errands. You're not going to be able to walk because public transportation is not there. So the research found that not only were people driving more, but they often also sped when they drove because either they were in a rush or they felt they knew the, the roads well. And there, the result is cars going off the road and flying into trees or flying into ditches. The other component of rural driving that is worrying — and this is true not just in rural Georgia, but in rural areas around the country — is that driver’s education has, in a lot of cases, moved online, right? There used to be a time in this country where most people went into a classroom to learn how to drive. That — that's what I did. But in a lot of parts of the country, those programs have been gutted and have been moved online. So people will learn how to pilot a vehicle through an online class. Sometimes they're getting in the vehicle, a real vehicle, for the first time when they're taking their driver's exam.

Peter Biello: Well, Matthew, I read your article while getting to work on MARTA today. Feeling very safe.

Matthew Shaer: I will tell you this. I — researching this article — I have two young kids. I don't drive as much as I used to since starting the article. It's — it was a sobering, frightening experience doing this research. It really was.

Peter Biello: How do you get by not driving as much? Do you simply just judiciously plan your trips or do you take other forms of transportation?

Matthew Shaer: Well, this is where luck comes into it, right? I mean, there are, I — I happen to live in the Decatur area, which is relatively walkable. There are a lot of sidewalks. My kids can walk to school if they want to. But — and this is true in some other cities that are really investing in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure — the sad truth is, there's a lot of the country that just doesn't have that choice, which is sort of why we're in this predicament, right? And especially in lower income spot — lower income parts of the country. There is no choice, right? You get in your car because you have to get in your car because you have to go to work, you have to go to school, or you have to go to the grocery store. And if you don't have that choice, you are, unfortunately — you put up with that risk. It becomes part of your life.