Car deaths rise days after terror attacks

Terrorism’s deadly effects may not occur all at once. Consider the disturbing tendency, described in a new study in Israel, for the number of automobile fatalities to surge by an average of 35 percent 3 days after each of a series of terrorist attacks.

Guy Stecklov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Joshua R. Goldstein of Princeton University attribute the third-day spike in traffic deaths to a delayed, population-wide reaction to terrorist acts. However, reasons for the day-3 increase—which ranged as high as 69 percent after terrorist attacks that killed 10 or more people—remain unclear, the scientists say.

They present their findings in the Oct. 5 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For an 18-month period from 2000 to 2001, Stecklov and Goldstein examined data on the amount of daily traffic along Israel’s main commuter highway, national automobile accident statistics, and the timing of 63 terrorist attacks in Israel—excluding the West Bank and Gaza—that killed one or more people.

The road-death spike occurred despite traffic volume falling slightly for 4 to 5 days after attacks. Major attacks resulted in volume declines 3 days later of as much as 15 percent during rush hours. The researchers estimate that terrorist violence caused 28 extra traffic deaths during the study period.

Terrorist attacks may temporarily heighten people’s feelings of hostility, stress, and frustration, all of which may boost reckless driving, the scientists say. It’s even possible that such violence may induce some drivers to commit suicide on the roads, the researchers speculate.

They plan to look for other population-wide reactions to terrorist attacks, such as brief changes in the rate of domestic violence.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.