CADILLAC — Since mid-March, a lot of things have been different due to COVID-19, but slowly things are starting to return to normal as the second half of June has started.
School is out for the year, even though students have been at home full-time since late winter. Weather is getting warmer and the start of summer is just around the corner. In Northern Michigan, this time of year typically means traffic is heavier, especially during the weekends and on holidays, but also in general.
This year, however, COVID-19 has impacted things.
With businesses just recently starting to reopen across the Northern Michigan region, traffic has been less as has the number of crashes responded to and tickets issued by police. That is starting to change.
While traffic levels, tickets issued, and crashes reported are less when compared to the same time last year, they are increasing and the expectation is they will continue to rise as summer starts and progresses.
TRAFFIC PATTERNS AND CONSTRUCTION
Since the pandemic started, the Michigan Department of Transporation has been tracking traffic volumes across the state and in the seven different geographic regions, according to MDOT North Region Communications Specialist James Lake.
It should come as no surprise that traffic volumes have dropped when compared to last year, but since late April they have been increasing steadily. He said although they are down roughly 30% when compared to the same time during 2019, they are rebounding.
The North Region, which includes Wexford and Missaukee counties as well as 19 other Northern Lower Michigan saw traffic decrease 31.3% since March 1. The North Region saw its biggest drop in traffic on April 12 when traffic dropped 68.4%. Again, this is when compared to the same time in 2019.
The Grand Region, which includes Lake and Osceola counties as well as 11 other counties saw traffic decrease 33.4% since March 1. The Grand Region saw its biggest drop in traffic on March 28 when traffic dropped 62%.
Statewide, traffic has decreased by 38.5% since March 1 when compared to 2019. The highest decline of 59.5% occurred on April 6-12. Lake said on June 8, statewide traffic was down 20.1% when compared to 2019, which was the smallest decline during the past few months and the peak of the upward trend to this point.
He said MDOT is not making any predictions when it comes to traffic and the likelihood of it returning to normal levels at some point this summer. Instead, he said the department is measuring things based on the information it is receiving from its various tracking points across the state.
With that in mind, Lake said Northern Michigan, in particular, sees its traffic peak from June-August so based on the current data that is being collected it is reasonable to assume traffic volumes will continue to increase throughout the next few months.
When it comes to construction, Lake said MDOT has been able to continue on schedule as it was deemed essential. There have been some delays because contractors, in some cases, were not able to muster a full crew, according to Lake. He also said in some of the more remote road projects there were issues with finding lodging for crews.
"By in large work has continued as expected," Lake said. "A lot of our work zones were a little safer with lower traffic volumes passing through them for the past couple months. We hope as people begin to travel they will stay conscience of our work zones and make sure they are not distracted."
POLICE SEE DECLINES IN TRAFFIC STOPS, TICKETS DURING PANDEMIC
Wexford County Undersheriff Rick Doehring said with traffic volumes lower the issuance of tickets also has been down.
He also said COVID-19 has impacted the Wexford County Sheriff's Office's ability to do what is called "proactive law enforcement." What that means is more serious traffic offenses such as operating while intoxicated or reckless driving are still priorities but there was more leeway for things such as speeding or equipment violations.
With restrictions being lifted and the region starting to reopen, Doehring said deputies are starting to reengage with proactive law enforcement activities.
"We have started being more proactive, especially when the restrictions were lifted for people being allowed to come north. To coincide with that, our enforcement action has increased," he said.
Although there is the misconception that police write tickets to bring money into the coffers, Doehring said the amount of money that tickets generate for the sheriff's office is minimal. He said a majority of the funds go to the court systems and believe it or not, the state's library fund.
Traffic citation revenue help to pay for public libraries, county law libraries, court funding units, local units of government, counties, local law enforcement agencies, and the Justice System Fund. The Justice System Fund helps pay for programs administered by the Michigan State Police, and state departments of Corrections, Health and Human Services, and Treasury, as well as the Legislature and the judiciary.
When looking at ticket numbers for March 17-June 16, 2019, Doehring said 211 total citations were issued and that number includes booking fees. For the same time in 2020, 137 total citations were issued, which Doehring said shows traffic tickets and bookings are down by roughly 35% year to year.
When it comes to crashes, June 16 stats from the Michigan State Police reported 25 people died on Michigan roadways since last week making a total of 330 for the year. Also, 109 more were seriously injured for a statewide total of 1,593 to date. Compared to last year at this time there are 42 fewer fatalities and 471 fewer serious injuries, according to the MSP.
With the summer travel season underway and big holidays such as the Fourth of July on the horizon, Doehring said he anticipates traffic volumes will continue to increase but he believes it won't be like a normal year. With many events and festivals canceled for the summer, that will likely keep some from traveling north but he also expects many people will still come north.
GAS PRICES REBOUNDING
On Monday, AAA of Michigan reported gas prices across the state continued to rise as Father's Day is approaching.
Gas prices in Michigan are up 6 cents compared to last week and drivers are paying an average price of $2.11 per gallon for regular unleaded, according to AAA. This price is 26 cents more than this time last month and about 55 cents less than this time last year.
The auto club also said Michigan drivers are paying an average of $32 for a full 15-gallon tank of gasoline which is a discount of $12 from when prices were their highest last July. According to new data from the Energy Information Administration, gas demand has continued to increase, moving from 7.5 million barrels per day to 7.9 million barrels per day last week.
"If demand continues to trend higher, motorists will likely see pump prices continue to increase through the end of the month," AAA spokesperson Adrienne Woodland said.