As anyone who has driven around Chattanooga and Hamilton County over the past couple of months, especially when the shelter-in-place recommendation was in high gear, surely would say traffic has been less to non-existent in most cases.
And, as seems logical, the number of traffic accidents has decreased. At the same time, though, the severity of the accidents has increased.
“Despite fewer daily traffic accidents during shelter-in-place, there is an increase in the severity of injuries as a percentage of the whole,” Reid Belew, marketing manager at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP).
Writing in the online magazine Medium on May 21, Belew notes that accidents without injuries accounted for 70 percent of all accidents before shelter-in-place began. Since it went into effect, that number has dropped to 65 percent.
“While a five percent drop may not initially sound alarming, the shift in traffic patterns has paved the way for more severe accidents despite lower totals,” he says.
Ask pretty much anyone in Chattanooga where many—or even most—car accidents occur in the city and one place usually pops up in the list. Hamilton Place. But that’s not the case recently.
“We’re seeing high increases of accidents on East Brainerd Road, particularly around Jenkins Road and Banks Road, and also along Dodds Avenue near East 21 Street,” says Mina Sartipi, director of CUIP and UC Foundation professor in the UTC Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
“These are completely different areas of concern than we see normally, like near Hamilton Place or along Martin Luther King Boulevard toward Tennessee 27 North,” she says.
“Please note,” she adds, “that this is an ongoing project and we may find more information as we gather more data.”
Since early February, CUIP and UTC student Pete Way, who’s pursuing a master’s in computer science and engineering, have been monitoring traffic data gathered by the City of Chattanooga, and accident information from the Hamilton County Emergency District, or 911. The data being studied was taken in two separate time periods—Feb. 3 until March 20, the day area schools closed, and March 20 until May 15, which covers the timeframe after shelter-in-place began.
The information being examined falls under the overall mission of CUIP, which heads the Smart Cities project in Chattanooga, whose ultimate goal is improving the quality of life in the area.
Locally, CUIP works with, among others, EPB, TVA, Siskin Hospital, Co.Lab, the Enterprise Center, the city of Chattanooga and the Chattanooga Department of Transportation. It also collaborates on research projects with the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other universities.
Among Smart City projects expected to benefit residents are creating more efficient transportation systems, improving electrical and water delivery, making healthcare more accessible and designing streets that are safer for drivers, pedestrians and bikers.
Examining traffic patterns “falls under the Smart Cities umbrella,” Sartipi says.
“Investigating how a global pandemic affects and changes traffic patterns is a specific, dynamic and hopefully short-lived area of focus within that umbrella.”
In the Medium article, Kevin Comstock, Smart City director for the city of Chattanooga, suggests that the increase in severity of injuries may be due to drivers going faster because there are fewer vehicles on the road. In April, the average speed in the city was 12 mph faster than normal, he says, and that extra burst of speed may be why injuries are more serious when accidents occur.
As for the future of traffic and vehicle accidents now that Chattanooga and Hamilton County slowly reopen, that’s still something of a mystery, Sartipi says.
“It may be too early to make a call on what our new round of normal will look like,” she says. “Hopefully, we will see more vehicles creating slower travel speeds, leading to less severe accidents. It will be interesting to keep tabs on these trends… The more we know, the more insights we can offer.”