If we are honest, most of us will admit that we sometimes speed, whether it’s driving a few miles per hour too fast when we’re going through a town or just keeping up with the flow of traffic on the highway, where the posted speed limit is apparently considered a minimum.

It’s an unconscious thing. We trust our skills and our judgement when we’re behind the wheel, and we don’t pay much attention to the speedometer unless we see a police cruiser.

It seems harmless, until you read reports like the one that came out late last week from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Traffic deaths were up 18 percent in the first six months of this year compared to 2020, and 13 percent above the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

That’s the biggest year-over-year increase since the record-keeping system was created in 1975, and the more than 20,000 deaths make it the deadliest six months on the road in 15 years.

The cause, traffic experts say, could be COVID. There’s evidence that since the pandemic hit early last year more drivers have engaged in risky behavior like speeding – the cause of about 40 percent of traffic fatalities – and substance use. There also seems to be a decline in seatbelt use.

Does it seem farfetched to connect a respiratory virus with how hard you push on the accelerator? Maybe, but none of us has ever lived through a global pandemic like this.

It’s clear that COVID is changing the way we live, work and relate to each other, so it’s not so farfetched to look into other ways it could be affecting our behavior.

Drug overdose deaths spiked in 2020, with more than 93,000 lives lost nationally and 504 in Maine. This year promises to be even worse.

Part of this is attributed to the presence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is used as a cheap additive to street drugs, making them especially deadly. But people working to end the epidemic also cite the social isolation that comes from living in a pandemic. People are spending more time alone, and if they overdose, there’s no one to call for help.

Another strange phenomenon of these last 18 months is the murder rate, which jumped 30 percent in 2020, the biggest increase in 60 years.

According to the FBI, there were 21,570 murders last year, almost 5,000 more than the previous year. While this was still far below the peak years in the early 1990s, it’s an alarming trend, especially since most other reported crimes actually decreased.

The FBI doesn’t tell us much about why so many people killed each other. We know that 77 percent of the murders were committed with guns, and there were nearly 40 million applications for FBI background checks required for gun purchases and transfers last year, an all-time record. And according to an estimate by the National Shooting Sport Foundation, 8.4 million people bought a gun for the first time in 2020.

The pandemic has made many people feel less safe, and some have responded by buying a gun. That raises questions that need to be explored. Does simply increasing the supply of guns increase the number of people who get shot? How many pulled the trigger in response to the pressures of living through the last 18 months?

There are other signs that COVID’s effects are not limited to physical illness and death. The phenomenon called The Great Resignation is not just a clever headline. The labor force participation rate registered its biggest drop on record last year, as people stayed home to care for children or other family members, or out of concern for their own health.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, a significant number of people who had not intended to retire in 2020 changed their minds. What made them do that?

I’m sure that everyone had their own reasons, but when millions of people come to the same conclusion at the same time, you have to ask what else was going on in the world at that moment that affected them all.

It could be that living with the uncertainty of the pandemic, we are all just a little angrier, less patient, more likely to do something rash than we were in 2019. All it takes is a little shift in mood and behavior to have gigantic results when it’s multiplied by millions of people across society.

It’s a good thing to think about, like right before you put your foot on the gas.


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