The COVID-19 shutdown cut down on traffic for more than a month, which not only reduced air pollution but also reduced collisions both with wildlife and other drivers.
After Gov. Steve Bullock issued his mid-March directives asking people to work from home and closing most businesses and all schools, Montana’s streets went quiet. Photos taken during the last weekend of March show cities looking like ghost towns. The only regular traffic was grocery trucks and U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and UPS delivery vehicles.
The casual observer could tell traffic was way down, but data collected from traffic sensors and smart traffic signals show just how much effect the shutdown had.
By mid-April, traffic across Montana was only about 60% of what it normally is at that time of year, according to MS2. That was a little better than the nation as a whole, which had about 45% less traffic.
MS2 is a company that created a website to publish traffic data compiled from about half of the states in the nation to show the changes caused by the pandemic. Less traffic should result in fewer collisions, and recent data shows that to be the case.
Montana is a state known for having a lot of wildlife collisions, but there were far fewer this spring. MDT workers removed 958 animal carcasses from roads statewide between March 1 and May 14. That number is one-half and two-thirds the number removed in 2018 and 2019 during the same time period, according to data requested from the Montana Dept. of Transportation.
It’s not known how many of these animals might have caused human injury or death – the data hasn’t been sorted yet – but a lot more animals stayed alive and fewer drivers had to file insurance claims for wildlife collisions this spring.
However, the Montana Highway Patrol has recorded only slight fewer crashes and deaths on the highways during the shutdown.
As of May 11, there have been 30 crashes for the year in Montana, compared to around 40 in 2018 and 2019.
But when you subtract the number of crashes that occurred during the first two months of the year to see what has happened during the slowdown, there has been only 3 fewer crashes than in 2019 and 2018.
Part of the explanation is that the majority of crashes – 21 – involved one vehicle. Officers suspect excessive speed as the cause in 15 of those and the drivers weren’t wearing seat belts.
Those kinds of crashes can happen even without a lot of traffic. In fact, they may have happened exactly because of a lack of traffic.
Nationwide, law enforcement officers are reporting that some people are taking advantage of traffic-free roads to speed and joy ride.
“The trend is very concerning,” said Catherine Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the Washington Post. “At a time of national crisis, drivers should not be turning our roadways into racetracks.”
What’s unnerving about that trend is that traffic is beginning to pick up again, now that Montana is phasing out of the shutdown. During the past week, Montana’s traffic volume is still below average, but now it’s only 20% less than normal.
In addition, the Montana Department of Transportation has been using this time to try to get a lot of roadwork done. Work is currently being done on 64 stretches of road around the state, including six projects on I-90, six on I-15 and five on I-94.
With such road obstacles and more traffic, coronavirus-related speeding is even more dangerous, but officers hope the urge to be reckless will die down as things return to normal.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at