More than a year into the pandemic, some things are returning to normal. Increasing vaccine access means some families have been able to reunite safely after months apart. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and business capacity restrictions. And traffic is making a comeback.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, traffic volume dropped by nearly half in the Austin area and across the country. It then gradually increased until last summer, when it leveled off at around 80% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a new dashboard compiled by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
More recently, traffic volume has trended slightly upward as compared to the summer plateau, Austin Transportation Department Consulting Engineer Jen Duthie told Austonia. In the last week, there has been a decrease, with traffic volume hovering at around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, which she suggested could be due to spring break and daylight savings.
This drop came with some unexpected consequences. Although the number of overall crashes in Austin fell nearly 20% in 2020, fatal crashes grew more common, increasing nearly 5% in the same time period. City data suggests a number of reasons for this change, from young drivers taking advantage of emptier roads and speeding to police enforcing traffic laws less stringent in an effort to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
Since the holidays, the state of Texas has recovered from its latest COVID surge, increasingly opened up and expanded vaccine eligibility. It's still too early to tell the exact impact that these changes will have on traffic congestion. But Austin Police Department Detective Patrick Oborski, who works on the highway enforcement team, said there are some positive signs. "Traffic is definitely increasing on the roads, so people aren't able to drive quite as fast," he told Austonia.
The number of overall crashes, serious injuries and fatalities are all down compared to this time last year, according to city data. Oborski suspects that traffic levels and crash types may return to their baseline levels as the pandemic recovery continues. But he was careful to mention that there will be long-term impacts as a result of the past year. "Things have changed," he said, citing the sea change of remote work. "I don't think we're going to go back to where we were pre-pandemic."
This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning to include the latest weather forecast information.
With more than two hundred thousand Austin Energy customers without power and countless businesses closed due to the historic winter weather, the National Weather Service announced a second winter storm warning is in effect starting Tuesday evening.
Although Austin temperatures are expected to increase over the next few days—to a forecasted high of 39 on Wednesday compared 29 on Monday—the Central Texas region is expected to face freezing rain on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, according to NWS. A second round of precipitation—this time a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain—is expected Wednesday night into Thursday morning.
Another Winter Storm Warning is in effect from Tuesday night through Wednesday night as additional rounds of wintry precipitation are possible. Tuesday night is expected to be primarily freezing rain while Wednesday night may be a mix of rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow. #txwx pic.twitter.com/4QGI7ZZ7Tb
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) February 15, 2021
This weather will likely lead to slippery road conditions that could make travel dangerous. The frigid cold has hardened any ice that partially melted during the daytime and has led to patches of black ice on roadways and concrete surfaces, according to NWS. Additional rain on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings will lead to accumulated ice on roads.
Cold wind chills could also result in hypothermia if precautions aren't taken. A hard freeze warning is in effect until noon on Tuesday and poses a threat to people, pets and pipes that are outdoors.
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The polar vortex led to icy Austin roadways—and traffic collisions—Thursday morning.
Austin-Travis County EMS and Austin Fire first reported a 26-car pileup on North State Highway 45, near Parmer Lane, around 8:20 a.m. EMS reports 32 people were involved in the accident with at least one serious injury and four people transported from the scene to St. David's Hospital in Round Rock.
26 car pileup at FM620 and SH 45. These are the cars that remain. #atx #kxan pic.twitter.com/pARPXf4vRr
— Nick Bannin (@nickbannin) February 11, 2021
Drivers are encouraged to avoid the area.
Texas Department of Transportation crews are treating major roads and bridges but some ice is still forming, with trouble spots mostly clustered north and west of Austin.
The latest snapshot from https://t.co/FA8rsTh6VJ. Trouble spots are mainly north and west of Austin. Crews are treating, but please slow down and prepare for slick roadways. #TxDOTwx #BeSafeDriveSmart #KnowBeforeYouGo #EndTheStreakTX pic.twitter.com/c7D77l3Pfy
— TxDOT Austin (@TxDOTAustin) February 11, 2021
Austin drivers are not the only ones facing winter weather conditions. At least five were confirmed dead and dozens more injured after a 75-plus vehicle pileup left drivers trapped on I-35 just north of downtown Fort Worth Thursday morning, according to NBC DFW.
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Even with COVID-19 keeping hundreds of people at home for the bulk of 2020, traffic deaths reached the highest point they had seen since 2015 and official sources are citing speeding as a major cause.
News outlets started reporting high traffic fatality numbers in early 2020, before the pandemic even started. The year concluded with 94 traffic deaths, according to the Austin Police Department. Austin hasn't seen the death toll reach that high since it hit 102 in 2015.
Even though Austin drivers were largely off the roads—a 25-80% decrease throughout the year—the death count rose despite traffic experts expecting a decline.
What caused the deaths?
Many reports, like KUT, blame the increased death toll on increased speeding in the pandemic era. They reported that a person hit at 40 mph is five times more likely to be killed than someone hit at 24 mph and the roads are certainly less congested than they have been in years past. Austin Transportation Department reported that speeding is the primary contributor in 25% of accidents resulting in death.
Other reports show that police officers feel they are spread thin: the Austin American-Statesman reported that APD priorities have shifted, pulling officers looking for drunk drivers off of highways. During an eventful year, protests gripped the police department's gaze, especially from May to July.
What is the city planning to do?
The city rolled out plans to decrease speed limits and add speed mitigation treatments, like speed bumps, around Austin where necessary. The change is part of ATD's Vision Zero program, which hopes to reach zero traffic deaths by 2025.The changes, which were finalized before the end of the year, reduced speed limits downtown from 30 to 25 mph and reduced residential streets under a certain width to 25 mph. A complete map of speed changes can be viewed here.
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