The Massachusetts roadway fatality rate doubled in April, part of what officials described as a "disturbing trend" of more reckless driving on streets where congestion has evaporated during the pandemic.
Department of Transportation leaders convened a virtual press conference Monday to broadcast warnings about the deadly crashes and dangers on the roadways. Last month, they said, 28 people died in crashes, one more than the 27 that died in April 2019 despite 50 percent less traffic.
Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver told reporters that investigators believe speed or distraction were involved in most of the fatal crashes. While the data are preliminary, Gulliver said officials believe more motorists are driving unsafely because they are now "seeing an open road."
"They're not seeing the congestion we used to see just a month and a half ago, and as a result, we're seeing that driving conditions across the board have changed," Gulliver said. "You don't need to get any place as quickly as some of these people are driving right now."
"This has been a trend we certainly didn't expect to see and don't want to see," he later added.
The April deaths comprise 18 car or truck operators, four passengers, two motorcyclists, one bicyclist and three pedestrians, according to MassDOT.
Fatal crashes occurred across the state in April, ranging from Boston and Springfield to Townsend and Rehoboth. About one-third of the fatalities involved crashes on interstates, while the remaining two-thirds were on local roads.
On Saturday, a New Hampshire woman was killed when she failed to negotiate a curve on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle on Route 2 in Florida.
Gulliver said officials have not identified any hotspots with disproportionate risks, warning of a "pretty even spread of where we're seeing these problem areas" and a greater number of high-speed crashes on smaller roads.
"This really is a statewide issue," he said. "It's impacting Main Street as much as it's impacting the interstate."
The department will launch a public awareness campaign Monday, posting messages on its highway signs urging drivers to observe speed limits and avoid distractions regardless of road conditions. Gulliver said officials will also work to deploy speed feedback signs and continue their collaboration with police on enforcement.
Massachusetts typically had the lowest annual fatality rate in the nation at 5.2 deaths per 100,000 vehicle miles traveled, according to Gulliver. Based on the amount of traffic in April, the state would have experienced 13 or 14 roadway deaths if the average rate held rather than the 28 observed.
"It's a huge, huge problem to see the rate specifically double," Gulliver said.
MassDOT does not yet have data on the total number of crashes in April, which Gulliver said tend to lag preliminary reporting of fatal crashes by about a month. He also deferred questions about an increase in ticketing to state police, who could not be reached immediately Monday.
Gulliver said officials generally agree, though, that the rapid decline in traffic amid the pandemic gave many motorists false confidence that they could drive faster or distracted — even in the first month that the state's new ban on cellphone use behind the wheel carried fines — with no consequences.
Nonessential businesses and schools in Massachusetts have been closed since mid-March to help limit transmission of the highly infectious COVID-19. Compared to pre-pandemic averages, total vehicle miles traveled statewide were about 50 percent lower in April. The trend was even more pronounced in Boston, where traffic dropped about 70 percent.
While the greater Boston region's notorious congestion creates headaches for commuters, Gulliver said one positive is that it limits the number of high-speed crashes, which tend to be more harmful. Other states with high traffic have also observed similar spikes in deadliness on the roads, he said.
"The fact that we just did not have an adjustment period in general to the new driving conditions was really somewhat problematic. This was an overnight change for most people on the roadways," Gulliver said. "That quick period without any real adjustment was not beneficial to roadway safety."