The motorist looked to be aggravated. Aggrieved, even.

And why wouldn’t she be?

A trooper with the N.C. Highway Patrol, his Smokey the Bear hat freshly affixed to his near-bald head, was approaching her SUV.

Under normal circumstances — remember those? — the sight of a trooper about to ruin someone’s Wednesday morning would barely rate a mention.

But since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, with its stay-at-home orders, school closures and total upending of the economic status quo, such routine transactions have become rarer.

Not for much longer, if data collected by the N.C. Department of Transportation is any indication, some semblance of normal may be just around the next bend in the road.

“The numbers … appear to be rebounding,” said Pat Ivey, the DOT’s resident engineer for Forsyth County. “Not quite to normal but we’ve seen them go up every single week.”

That’s good, but with more travel comes the possibility of wider spread of COVID-19.

Hard data and soft choices

If you’ve left the house — and honestly, who hasn’t? — anecdotal evidence suggests that travel has picked up since bottoming out in mid-March following a series of executive orders by Gov. Roy Cooper.

A state of emergency was declared March 9, followed in close succession by the closing of bars and restaurants March 17, the shuttering of public schools the week after that and a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect May 30.

Commuting to work, errands, the daily rigamarole seemingly ground to a halt overnight. It didn’t take a genius to see that traffic fell, too.

And now we’ve got the hard data gathered by traffic counters embedded in the state’s major highways to back that up. Math! Science!

To wit:

* March 16-21, the first week after Cooper’s declaration of emergency and closing restaurants, average traffic counts statewide dropped 21% from mid-February.

* March 23-29, the first week after the closing of public school, average statewide counts dropped an additional 14% — more than a third less than mid-February.

The rates in cities where DOT collected data, by the time Cooper’s stay-at-home order took effect on March 30, had dropped noticeably.

In Greensboro, highway traffic was down by one-third through April 6. In Raleigh, the decline was even greater, with highway travel cut by nearly half. Charlotte, too, saw a decrease of about one-third. And in Raleigh, the decline was even greater, with highway travel down by nearly half between mid-February and mid-March.

(Percentages for Winston-Salem weren’t calculated in the DOT’s COVID-19 Traveler Impact Study, but Ivey said that “based on my observations, Winston is pretty much comparable to Greensboro.”

And equally as telling, as Ivey noted, the data supports what the naked eye reports: a weekly incremental increase in the number of people venturing out.

Average statewide traffic counts in the first week of May were still down a full 25% from mid-February, but they’re also up 10% from mid-April.

The glass is half-full. But what does any of that mean?

’Tired of this mess’

To me, the immediate fall-off indicates that most of us took seriously Cooper’s early warnings, recommendations and executive action.

Maybe that’s attributable to fear of coronavirus. Perhaps North Carolinians acted from a sense of civic responsibility or concern for family and friends. Maybe there was simply nowhere to go.

Or perhaps it's even simpler.

“Now people are claustrophobic,” Ivey said. “They’re just tired of this mess and want to go out even if it’s just to drive around. The old drives in the country to get out of the house.”

Traffic data gathered from population weekend getaway spots show quicker return to pre-pandemic levels.

“Asheville is back to normal,” Ivey said. “Wilmington had a little higher percentage increase. I figure that’s people wanting to go to the beach, itching to get out.”

That pebble-in-the-shoe restlessness is only going to get worse as the summer, with its unofficial beginning beckoning this Memorial Day weekend, bears down.

Overall, increasing traffic counts could be both blessing and curse — a blessing for those hobbled by unprecedented economic misery and curse for those occupied with slamming the lid on the spread of coronavirus.

Staying in is neither feasible nor sustainable. But more movement without adherence to continued common-sense precautions could contribute to second or third waves.

“Folks are moving around more, which means the virus is moving around more,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, in a news conference Thursday.

Without hard data — concrete scientific evidence — that will be difficult to say. Time will tell.

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