California’s lockdowns were as effective as a slow speed limit

California, Florida, and Texas are among the largest U.S. states, and all three shut down before the Coronoavirus was widespread. They also have similar demographics, and a mix of city and rural populations. I have been writing about the relative success of the coronavirus virus response in Florida and Texas compared to California since last August. The coronavirus is a deadly plague that has affected countless lives. The data now shows that the quasi-lockdowns implemented by some U.S. States, with California at the forefront, did not have a material impact on death rates.

California’s lockdowns have saved 3,500 lives versus Florida and 8,000 lives versus Texas, simply by extrapolating the per capita death rate and not adjusting for demographics such as Florida’s elderly population. 3,500 to 8,000 lives are not a trifling number of lives to lose and the impact of loss on families and friends is heartbreaking. That said, we must consider that California is a large state with a population of 39.5 million people where 271,000 people die in an ordinary year like in 2019.

California’s lockdowns have saved the same number of people that die in vehicle accidents

When compared to Florida’s coronavirus fatality rate, California has just passed the 3,500 lives saved threshold where its lockdown policies have saved the equivalent number of lives as its 3,500 annual traffic fatalities. Traffic fatalities are a reasonable metric that represents the policy trade-offs a society is willing to make between economics, freedom of movement, and health.

The following is of course tongue-in-cheek, with the intent to illustrate that government policies need to balance economics, freedom of movement, and health.

A California speed limit of 5mph will save 3,500 lives per year

According to data and science, setting the California speed limit to 5mph on all roads and highways will save 3,500 lives per year. Scientists at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have determined that at speeds of 5mph or lower, vehicle bumpers do not need to absorb the impact of an accident as there will be minimal harm to vehicle occupants or harm to pedestrians.

The elderly and vulnerable die at higher rates in accidents

Of particular concern are the elderly and people with comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes. These populations experience much higher rates of death from vehicle accidents than the young and healthy. The elderly also experience higher vehicle accident rates than the middle-aged population, so they are particularly vulnerable to accident deaths.

Long recovery time for some accident survivors

Beyond the 3,500 annual California vehicle fatalities, in 2017 there were over 277,000 people injured in California vehicle accidents. Some of these injuries require long hospitalizations and recovery times, with some patients having lasting debilitating conditions.

Your accident can kill others, especially the vulnerable

Even if you are a very safe driver, data shows that you will be involved in four vehicle accidents in your lifetime. A simple social interaction could cause a vehicle accident that could kill or severely harm others, especially the elderly and vulnerable. The inconvenience of driving 5mph is a small price to pay when you consider the lives saved.

Remote work and school since commuting is no longer possible

For many people, a 5mph speed limit makes commuting to work and school impossible. Thanks to modern technology, people can stop going to offices and schools and work remotely with technologies like Zoom and Slack. There are many lifestyle benefits to this style of working, although it can cause loneliness and depression. Essential workers will continue to work, although they will be very inconvenienced by the 5mph speed limit, but they will understand because the 5mph speed limit saves lives.

The climate benefits of the 5mph speed limit

Data and science show that driving at 5mph emits fewer greenhouse gases than driving at higher speeds. While the 5mph speed limit has massive inconveniences, there are also tangential benefits towards the greater goal of saving the planet. Even if the 5mph speed limit lasts for just a short while, we can see the collective benefits of limiting our driving speed.

Emergency vehicles should also be limited 5mph

Although it can also save lives to have rapid response fire, police, and ambulance services, the policy focus should be fixated on making sure that the streets are safe for all, especially the vulnerable. Subjecting all vehicles to the 5mph speed limit guarantees that 3,500 lives will be saved. Emergency vehicles should only go over the 5mph speed limit for the most dire of circumstances.

Spread the "Drive 5, Save Lives" message

The California government can’t simply set a 5mph speed limit and universally enforce it. So it’s important that the media and citizens widely publicize the benefits of the speed limit to the population. For the media, the highest impact is articles and photos of car wrecks, jaws of life, and morgues. People must think that they will die if they drive over 5mph. For citizens, the highest impact is constant social media posts, updated avatars, and public shaming via Nextdoor videos of neighbors driving 10mph instead of 5mph.

If the 5mph speed limit doesn’t make sense, neither did the lockdowns

Of course, last spring, nobody knew what to do. Hospitals and nursing homes were unprepared, so a short lockdown made sense. By the summer, there was already data from Europe on safe school reopenings, as well as serology testing showing an infection fatality rate of around 0.25% which was far lower than previous estimates, there was very little outdoor spread, and proof from that businesses could stay open with proper protocols

As I wrote in August, by the summer it was clear from the states that had reopened and contact tracing that businesses with safety protocols were not driving spread, including outdoor dining, gyms, and hairdressers.

It’s now been a full year. Looking at empirical data, it is clear that closing schools and businesses did not save many, if any, lives. The data trend was very predictable as I outlined in my December article. Let’s stop pointing out that cities mostly populated by rich, white people did great. The impact on BIPOC children and adults has been dreadful and is likely the most racist policy outcome the U.S. has experienced since segregation.

If all of the lockdown destruction was worth it, we would set the speed limit to 5mph tomorrow.