BOSTON -- With fewer cars on the road during a state of emergency, one might assume traffic crashes and fatalities would fall dramatically.
Not so, according to the state Department of Transportation, which says fatal auto crashes spiked last month despite substantially less traffic.
At least 28 people died in crashes in April, according to MassDOT's preliminary data. That's only one more fatality than was reported in April 2019, but transportation officials say the data is "disturbing" considering that traffic is reduced by more than half amid the pandemic.
Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said the data suggests people are speeding and taking unnecessary risks.
"It's a disturbing trend," he said Monday. "We want people to slow down, pay attention to their surroundings, and drive more cautiously."
Gulliver said the preliminary data shows the fatalities occurred on both state highways and local roads, and they appear to be evenly spread across the state.
At least three pedestrians and one bicyclist were among those killed.
Gulliver said reasons for the spike aren't clear -- the state has yet to release data on factors such as speeding or driving under the influence -- but one possible explanation is that drivers feel more emboldened to put the pedal to the metal with less congestion. Another is that they might not be worried about getting pulled over.
"This is one of those situations where it's difficult to nail down the exact issues that are contributing to these crashes, but we do know that speed and distraction are among the main ones," he said Monday.
Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association of New England, said the data should be a "wake up call" to motorists to slow down.
"The fact that the roads are open emboldens those who have a tendency to break the law and exceed the speed limit," she said. "We have enough tragedy to cope with right now, and with first-responders taxed to the limit, we don't need to add to the numbers by driving recklessly and endangering yourself and others."
Many states have reported a drop in crashes as businesses have shutdown and social distancing has forced commuters to work from home.
Some auto insurers, who have been reaping huge profits with fewer claims, are giving refunds and reducing premiums.
Gulliver said Massachusetts has had one the lowest fatality rates in the nation -- 5.2 deaths per 100,000 residents annually -- which makes the latest data hard to swallow.
"This is a trend that we didn't expect, and don't want to see," he said. "We need to do everything we can to dial this back and get back to No. 1 in the nation."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com