MORGANTOWN, WVa. — COVID-19 has put the brakes on AAA’s Memorial Day travel forecast due to unavailable economic data and estimates that fewer travelers will hit the road this holiday weekend due to the pandemic and social distancing recommendations.
But that doesn’t mean the roads will be safe and sound for all, according to West Virginia University research analyzing Memorial Day weekend motor vehicle fatalities spanning a 35-year period.
In an article published in BMC Research Notes, the study, led by Yuni Tang, a first-year Ph.D. epidemiology student in the School of Public Health, notes that Saturday is the deadliest day of the weekend, yet Monday has the highest odds of traffic fatality.
This is due to varying traffic volume and comparisons to non-holiday weekends and Mondays, Tang explained. Saturday is deadliest because more vehicles are on the road that day, she said, whereas Monday sees less traffic volume.
In the report, 35 percent of the traffic fatalities studied occurred during the Memorial Day holiday. The data covers the United States from 1981 to 2016.
“Motor vehicle crashes are a global public health issue, including in China and the United States,” said Tang, a native of Huaihua City, China. “When I was in China, many people, including my friends and family, experienced severe car collisions. They only got minor injuries, but the number of crash-related deaths in China is quite large.”
In 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that 20 percent of the world’s motor vehicle deaths occurred in China. By those standards, vehicle fatality numbers in the U.S. are a bit tamer.
“Developed countries, such as the United States, had two to five times fewer motor vehicle crash fatalities than China, possibly due to those countries maintaining higher vehicle standards and restricted transportation regulations,” Tang said.
Still, more than 38,000 Americans died in car crashes in 2019, according to the National Safety Council.
“Like China, transportation safety-related research in the United States is underreported due to limited crash statistics and road safety studies,” Tang said. “There’s an urgent need to pay more attention to transportation safety and make roads safer for all users.”
Tang said most Americans prefer motor vehicles for travel during holiday periods, culminating in higher traffic volume and longer-distance driving. Naturally, that increases the likelihood of accidents and deaths during holiday intervals.
Tang expects more Americans to stay home this year, resulting in fewer traffic fatalities. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, multiple states have reported a decline in car crash deaths.
“Not only do we need to keep social distancing but we need to remind ourselves to drive safely,” Tang said. “Death is irreversible.”
Tang earned a medical degree in China but then realized public health was her calling, so she came to the U.S. She got her master’s in public health at the Ohio State University in 2019 before entering her Ph.D. program at WVU. She expects to graduate in 2022.
“Medical science is more focused on how to cure people when the disease has already existed, but public health is more focused on how to prevent disease from happening again and protect vulnerable populations,” Tang said. “What an epidemiologist can do is to search the source of disease, to identify people who are at risk or vulnerable population, to use appropriate statistical analysis to determine how to control or prevent the disease, and to save more lives.”