Question: It seems like there have been a lot more serious crashes than normal lately. Is my perception accurate or have crashes just been making the news more often?
Answer: Unfortunately, your perception is disturbingly accurate. Over the past 10 years, we’ve averaged about 15 lives lost due to traffic crashes in Whatcom County. In 2015 and 2016, 11 and 12 people died in crashes, respectively. So far in 2017, 20 people have been killed in crashes.
That’s approaching our worst mark in more than a decade: 21 deaths, which occurred in 2008. And there are still almost two more months left in the year.
These aren’t just numbers. Each data point is a tragedy for the family and friends of the person who died.
If we look at the factors that contribute to these crashes, we realize that we don’t have to accept the death of road users as an assumed cost of driving. Driver behavior is responsible for nearly all crashes.
To get some perspective, let’s look at the factors involved in recent crashes.
In the first six months of 2017, 14 people died in traffic crashes. Impaired drivers were involved in eight of those deaths. Of those eight fatalities, four involved an alcohol impaired driver and five involved a drug impaired driver. That would indicate that one driver was impaired by both drugs and alcohol, one of the most deadly combinations on the road. Three of the five fatalities involving a drug impaired driver were drivers using marijuana.
The next greatest factor in fatal crashes was speed. Speeding drivers were involved in seven of the fatalities in the first six months of 2017. Following close behind speeding is distracted driving, involved in six fatalities in the first half of the year. Distracted driving also is one of the most under-reported causes of crashes, as it is more difficult to prove than impairment or speed.
These three factors – impairment, speed and distraction – are responsible for a large majority of the fatal crashes in our community, and they have been for a long time. We know what the problem is, but as drivers we haven’t collectively been able to take enough responsibility for our behavior on the roads to put an end to these kinds of crashes.
The other way to look at crashes is to ask who is involved. Our young drivers, age 16 to 25, are disproportionately represented in fatal crashes. Nine of the 14 fatalities involved a young driver. That suggests that we’re failing our young people in equipping them to drive safely.
Drivers over 70 were involved in three of the fatalities. Three fatal crashes involved pedestrians, two involved motorcycles and one involved a cyclist. Our most vulnerable groups make up only a small percentage of road users, but are victims of a large percentage of crashes. Older drivers are less likely to survive the impact of a serious crash, while motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians are mostly unprotected from the impact of a vehicle.
As I mentioned earlier, these fatal crashes aren’t just numbers; they are people in our community who have lost their lives, as well as families and friends who mourn the loss.
This Saturday, Nov. 18th, Whatcom County will be participating in World Day of Remembrance, a worldwide event to honor the family members, friends and neighbors who have died in traffic crashes, and to thank the first responders who provide aid and comfort at vehicle crash sites. The event will be held at the Bellingham Farmers Market at noon. Speakers will include emergency responders and a local family who lost a loved one to a traffic crash. The event will close with a memorial walk along the South Bay Trail to remember and honor the 148 people who have been killed in vehicle crashes in Whatcom County over the past 10 years.
Our attitudes toward driving and our commitment to safe driving have a significant impact on our community. Let’s remember those we have lost, and drive safely so that we don’t have to add more names to that memorial.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.