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How Climate Change May Affect Our Roads, Highways, and the Frequency of Car Accidents

Published on Nov 19, 2021 by Thomas Law Offices.

How Climate Change May Affect Our Roads, Highways, and the Frequency of Car Accidents

On October 7, 2021, the White House announced the release of Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plans from more than 20 federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor, Commerce, Homeland Security, and Transportation. These Climate Adaptation Plans detailed the methods that each agency’s facilities and operations would adopt in order to become increasingly resilient to climate change impacts.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for our national transportation infrastructure that includes more than 4.2 million miles of public roads. Within the DOT 2021 Federal Climate Adaptation Plan, the agency recognizes that “climate change presents a significant and growing risk to the safety, effectiveness, equity, and sustainability of our transportation infrastructure and the communities it serves.”

In this article we will discuss how climate change may affect our roads, highways, and the frequency of car accidents, based on the predictions of climate change researchers. Data will be drawn from the 2021 DOT report, along with the findings of thousands of studies documenting worldwide changes to atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, snow and glacier patterns, sea levels, ocean acidification, and atmospheric water vapor levels.

Climate Change’s Effect on Roads and Highways

The effects of climate change will undoubtedly have an impact on the roads, highways, and bridges that have been built and maintained in our country over the past several decades. According to the recent DOT report on climate change and its impact on transportation, the following threats are known and must be preemptively addressed:

  • Flooding and damage to highways and tunnels
  • Limited waterway access
  • Asphalt degraded by high temperatures
  • Weather surges likely to destroy roads and bridges
  • Weakened bridges and other structures
  • Shorter lifespan of infrastructures as sea levels rise
  • System downtime, derailments, and slower travel times
  • Interruptions to current emergency and evacuation routes
  • Infrastructure failures which make driving conditions unsafe
  • Rising temperatures making roads harder to build and maintain
  • Compromised safety of the traveling public
  • Restricted access to public transportation
  • Weakened overall mobility
  • Higher transportation system maintenance costs

Experts are further concerned that mobility restrictions will have a substantial influence on economic and lifestyle factors. As bridges and roadways are restricted and transportation becomes more limited, the transport of the goods and products on which our cities depend will become problematic. It is also anticipated that air and water travel will be curbed. Researchers predict that flights and departures will be frequently delayed or cancelled due to dangerous weather conditions, and increased temperatures will force shorter journeys with lighter cargo loads.

Daily work commutes may become more difficult as transportation is made slower, less frequent, and more challenging by climate change. Traveling for pleasure may be far less accessible, especially to the vulnerable and lower-income communities already constrained by our nation’s imperfect transportation system. In short, predictions indicate that disabled roadways will have a farther-reaching impact on our daily lives than we might realize.

Climate Change and the Frequency of Car Accidents

Although an increased frequency of car accidents may not be the most publicized consequence of climate change, experts are clear that this is a very real danger. Studies conducted in Washington D.C., Saudi Arabia, and California and Arizona have linked climate change with vehicle accident statistics. As our established patterns of national and international transportation become disrupted by climate change, there are predicted to be a multitude of high-impact ramifications.

For the purpose of our discussion in this article, we will focus on the effects on road and highway transportation, rather than rail, sea, air, or other forms of transportation. Based on research findings, the frequency of car accidents will likely be increased by at least three factors which we will discuss further: vehicle safety issues, shifting weather patterns, and driver behavior.

Vehicle Safety Issues

The current designs of the cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other vehicles which populate our national roadways are not able to withstand the weather conditions that climate change is expected to bring about. Manufacturers will need to take these anticipated changes into consideration when designing the vehicles for our future roads.

Much emphasis has been placed on designing eco-friendly cars with a lower negative environmental impact. This is a step in the right direction. But innovative thinking also needs to be devoted to designing vehicles that can withstand and adapt to higher temperatures and unpredictable weather occurrences. The below-listed vehicle safety issues may affect the future rate of vehicular collisions:

  • Overheated vehicles leading to mechanical failure
  • Vehicle fires
  • Disintegrated tires
  • Vehicles overturned by high winds
  • Vehicles disabled by flooded roads

Shifting Weather Patterns

The DOT Climate Adaptation report lists “Increased risk of vehicle crashes in severe weather” as a notable potential impact resulting from climate change. Adverse weather conditions are difficult enough for drivers to deal with when they are forecasted and predicable. Unpredictable weather occurrences make it even harder to prepare for these extreme conditions. Over the next few decades, drivers may be facing weather and climate conditions they have never faced before, including:

  • Extreme heat and sudden heatwaves
  • High winds
  • Unusual precipitation patterns
  • Hurricanes
  • Heavy rainstorms
  • Fog
  • Flooding
  • Cyclones

Driver Behavior

The European heatwave of 2003 resulted in over 30,000 deaths, and research scientists are pointing to this tragedy as a warning of what may continue to happen as temperatures rise globally. The health issues associated with climate change are not strictly physical—psychological, emotional, and behavioral changes are being researched as well.

Suicide, drowning, heart attacks, anxiety, malnutrition, increased reckless behaviors, mental health disorders, violence, higher crime rates, and even car accidents are being listed among the potential health-related concerns linked with climate change. The following health and behavioral factors may influence the prevalence of vehicle accidents:

  • More pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycle riders in hot temperatures
  • Traffic frustrations leading to increased prevalence of road rage
  • Driver fatigue as a result of adverse weather
  • Driver distraction, panic, and poor decision-making in situations of extreme weather
  • Sudden health collapse in older individuals (those at greatest risk for heart and lung failure)
  • Anxiety, depression, and PTSD leading to distracted or dangerous driving

The U.S. Department of Transportation Response

As each federal agency was tasked by the Biden-Harris administration to complete, the Department of Transportation’s 2021 report listed several actionable items to address the effects of climate change. The DOT acknowledged that vulnerable communities have less capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and other climate change-related events, and stated that the agency will aim toward educating and creating solutions for these more acutely-impacted citizens.

Some of the priority actions detailed in the report include:

  • Ensure that projects supported by DOT grant and loan programs incorporate climate resilience
  • Ensure transportation projects are planned, designed, and constructed to be resilient to climate change impacts
  • Ensure that DOT facilities and operational assets are resilient to the effects of climate change
  • Lead by example to ensure climate-ready services and supplies
  • Require climate change training for all program managers
  • Improve and increase climate change education programs
  • Reassess projects that do not incorporate climate resilience
  • Increase climate resiliency of critical buildings and structures

What Can We Do to Keep Our Roads Safe?

One way to reduce the risk of more car accidents is by taking measures to educate the public about climate change-related driving risks. Public health efforts can be directed toward promoting awareness and adaptability, cutting carbon emissions to limit future warming, and encouraging a culture of safer, more conscientious driving behaviors.

Some parts of the world are engaging in creative strategies to slow future temperature increases. For example, in Barcelona, drivers who get rid of a vehicle without an environmental certification can receive a pass for free public transportation for three years. France is also incentivizing citizens to exchange outdated, un-environmentally-friendly autos for electric bicycles, transit cards, folding bikes, or car-club subscriptions.

As Chicago car accident lawyers, the attorneys at Thomas Law Offices acknowledge our responsibility to do what we can to increase road safety for all. We believe it is important to be aware of the most recent developments in scientific research and its impact on the legal community. Only by understanding the issues harming our community, nation, and world can we take part in efforts to resolve them.

Through legal action, we can help to reduce the number of fatal accidents that occur on our roads and highways every day. With questions regarding car accident law and what we can do to help you after an accident, reach out to our office for a free consultation.

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Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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