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Fewer crashes, improved air quality in Richmond during shutdown

Pandemic credited for 'dramatic' drop in traffic, crashes
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Posted at 7:08 PM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 19:17:15-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- New data compiled by researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed fewer car crashes and improved air quality in the River City.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, presented the figures as part of the Lunch Break Science program via Zoom on Wednesday.

“Our traffic has responded quite dramatically in response to the shutdown,” Hoffman explained. “I think that we'll see some long term positives that come out of this devastating situation that we're in right now.”

Hoffman analyzed data collected through VDOT’s Traffic Records Electronic Data System. Engineers used electronic traffic counters at the Bryan Park Interchange to determine the number and size of each vehicle.

Hoffman compared the number of vehicles traveling on the interstate since the statewide shutdown began in early March with years past.

“There's been a drastic reduction in the amount of passenger car traffic passing those counters. We’re talking something on the order of somewhere between 40 and 50 percent on average. Depending on the day it could be over 50 percent difference,” Hoffman stated.

Along with fewer cars on Richmond’s roads comes a decrease in the number of reported car crashes.

“There has been about a 50 percent reduction in the number of car crashes that we would normally see in March 2020 versus March 2018 and 2019,” Hoffman said.

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The number of tractor trailers and 18-wheelers on the road relatively stayed the same since we are still relying on deliveries during the shutdown.

The reduction in traffic may also contributed to improvements in the air we breathe.

“In response to the traffic plummeting starting in mid-March we've incrementally seen a decrease in the amount of pollutants through that time,” Hoffman stated.

The scientist included data from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that collects information about the pollutants produced as a result of traffic and the burning of fossil fuels.

Richmond’s air quality has improved over the past two decades, but especially since the shutdown began, according to Hoffman. Recent warmer temperatures and wetter months have also contributed to better air quality.

Hoffman showed CBS 6 a graph comparing the weekday average hourly nitrogen dioxide levels at Bryan Park over the past four years.

“When we look at 2020 — during the same time period from the middle of March to the mid part of April there are significantly lower amounts of these pollutants in the air compared to years past,” he explained.

Hoffman expected these environmental impacts to return to their averages when the stay-at-home orders are lifted.

“I keep hearing from friends and family is that, ‘Isn't it amazing? The birds sound like they're in stereo,’” he recalled. “I think what people have really noticed is just how much quieter it is at night in our in our busy urban centers. That among all the other things to me connects us with that sense that we do live in nature.”