American behavior has changed — and not for the better

Car accident

COVID-19 has disrupted everyone’s life. Recommended or mandated policies and guidelines, whether they involved stay-at-home orders back in the spring of 2020, wearing facemasks on transportation systems and in public venues or being vaccinated, all have shifted the center of gravity for human behavior.

The field of human-computer interaction focuses on designing computers systems and interfaces that facilitate productive exchanges. As such, poor designs can lead to degraded performance and in many cases, unintended consequences. The same can be said with how humans interact amongst themselves, resulting in responses that are difficult to anticipate and foresee.

One such response that appears to have surfaced is dangerous, and in some cases, risky behavior. Whether this can be attributed to personal frustrations or outright rebellion, Americans are displaying a higher level of harmful behaviors during their interactions with others, placing themselves and others at greater personal risk.

Over the past two years, several indicators have emerged that suggest changed or riskier behavior.

Automobile fatalities: The number of automobile fatalities recently reached an all-time high, after a long and steady decline over the past several decades, even taking into account a growing number of drivers and the number of miles driven. The causes of automobile accidents are varied, though driver distraction ranks at the top of the list. Cell phone and mobile device usage during driving are a common distraction, often attributed to higher automobile accidents. However, distractions can come in many forms. A question to ask is, have the mental pressures felt by individuals during the pandemic provided unexpected distractions? If so, have such distractions contributed to the record level of automobile fatalities?

Air rage: Air rage has reached record levels during the pandemic. More than 6,000 people have been placed on no-fly lists by airlines, with the majority related to the federal transportation face mask mandate, which has now been extended to May 3. Establishing a national no-fly list has been discussed by lawmakers. The recently announced Protection from Abusive Passengers Act would go even further to ensure the safety of flight crews and passengers in flight, if enacted. The increased number of travelers acting out is a disturbing trend. The good news is that most travelers have been well-behaved during flights. Given that in 2021, more than 580 million people traveled by air, this volume of travelers would reveal the higher rate of bad behavior, exposing flight crews and other passengers to unnecessary dangers and risks.

Drug overdose fatalities: Drug overdoses have skyrocketed, predominantly from opioids. Over 100,000 people died of drug overdoses in the one year period ending April 2021, an increase of over 28 percent from the prior year, with 75 percent of these deaths attributed to opioids. Alcohol-related deaths were also up over 25 percent between 2019 and 2020. Anytime a person uses illicit drugs, they are traversing a hazardous slope, given that many illicit drugs today are laced with Fentanyl, a highly potent and dangerous synthetic opioid. No one using opioids intentionally plans to overdose, even those who obtain such products with a prescription. Yet, the fact that the number of overdoses has reached record levels suggest that addiction is rampant, and people are exhibiting risky behavior at unprecedented levels.

Whatever the causes of these behavioral changes, Americans are not responding well. Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine causality for all such changes, the takeaway is that more people are exhibiting riskier behavior, and these changes are translating into poor outcomes.

Will such behavior persist or dampen with time? No one knows. What is certain is that these changes in behavior have coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the nation transitions from the COVID-19 pandemic phase to the endemic phase, with face mask requirements and other countermeasures employed during the pandemic relaxed or eliminated, a new equilibrium will invariably be reached. The hope is that those who have exhibited destructive or riskier behaviors will pivot to more constructive behavior and responses.

All the same, returning to the pre-pandemic world is not an option. Whether people can come together to make the post-pandemic world safer for all remains an open question. The good news is that everyone has a say in building a safer tomorrow. What remains to be seen is whether they will choose to or are able do so.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags Air rage Behavior car crash Coronavirus COVID-19 overdose Pandemic Sheldon H. Jacobson Traffic accidents

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