Traffic

Who’s most at risk of dying in a traffic crash? Here are Whatcom’s numbers.

This is the third of a six-part series by The Bellingham Herald examining Whatcom County’s vehicle crash fatalities and how every driver can play a role in reducing those numbers.

Women are a whole lot less likely to die in a Whatcom County crash — almost three times less likely, according to data on the Washington Traffic and Safety Commission Fatal Collision Dashboard.

Between 2013 and 2017, 59 of the 74 traffic-related fatalities (72.8 percent) logged by the commission were male, while women accounted for 22 fatalities (27.2 percent). Those numbers are pretty close to the commission’s statewide statistics, where men accounted for 69.8 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Those of you with a Y chromosome aren’t the only demographic that should take notice, though, as age plays just as big a role, as does mode of transportation. (We’ll get to cyclists in a minute.)

“Drivers age 16 to 25 make up about 13 or 14 percent of the driving population, but they’re involved in 30 percent of the fatal crashes,” said Doug Dahl, Washington Traffic and Safety Commission Target Zero manager for Region 11, in a September interview with The Bellingham Heral . “They’re so severely overrepresented.”

“You’d think it’s because of their experience, which is part of it, but if you were to chart out the causes of young driver crashes, DUI, speed and distracted driving are still going to be the top reasons. All those things that are experienced-based, like failure to yield, lane change errors, running red lights — new drivers do make those mistakes and they do cause some fatalities, but at a much lower rate.”

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According to the commission’s stats, persons 16 to 25 accounted for 27.2 percent (22 of 74) traffic-related deaths in Whatcom County, which is higher than the statewide average of 22.2 percent for that age group.

Seniors and teens

Seniors older than 65 suffered 22.2 percent (18 of 74) of the traffic fatalities in Whatcom County, according to the commission’s stats.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in older driver fatalities,” Dahl said. “People are living longer and driving longer.”

But don’t start maneuvering to take away Gramma’s keys or rallying to raise the driving age just yet. People ages 26 to 65 still accounted for more than half (51.4 percent) of all traffic-related fatalities in Whatcom County, led by the 36-to-45 age group, which suffered 12 deaths (14.8 percent), according to the commission’s database.

According to the Washington Department of Transportation’s Crash Data Portal, which tracked fatal accidents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 31, 2018, teens were involved in an even higher rate of fatal accidents — at least one driver age 16-25 was involved in 38.6 percent (44) of Whatcom County’s 114 fatal accidents. At least one driver older than 65 was involved in 16.7 percent (19) of Whatcom’s fatal accidents, for the same period.

That serves as a good reminder that you don’t actually have to be behind the wheel to die in a crash.

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While the WTSC data showed 50 driver deaths (61.7 percent of the 74 fatalities) in Whatcom County between 2013 and 2017, passengers accounted for 14 deaths (17.3 percent); bicyclists or other cyclists, six deaths (7.4 percent); and pedestrians, 11 fatalities (13.6 percent).

Cars vs. bicycles

And with that stat, we just opened one of the most contentious of traffic issues in Bellingham — cars vs. bicycles.

“When it comes to drivers vs. cyclists, studies have shown that drivers and cyclists violate the rules at about same rate, with drivers being about one point higher on violating the rules,” Dahl told The Herald. “It’s not that if you are a cyclist, ‘Drivers are all the worst.’ Cyclists aren’t better. Or if. you’re a driver, ‘Oh those cyclists need to get a license to ride because they always break the rules.’

“If you’re a driver, you mostly vilify cyclists, and if you’re a cyclist, you mostly vilify drivers. But the data shows that they do the same things, which kind of makes sense, because pretty much every cyclist is also a driver.”

But they definitely do not face the same level of risk.

According to the WSDOT data, bicyclists were involved in just six (5.3 percent) of Whatcom County’s 114 fatal accidents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 31, 2018.

While that percentage is nearly double the statewide average (2.7 percent), it seems relatively low, especially when you see that it is only one-third of the number of fatal accidents involving a pedestrian (18 fatal crashes, or 15.8 percent).

Pedestrian impairment

“Typically, pedestrian fatalities are quite a bit higher than cycling fatalities,” Dahl said. “That’s just an exposure thing. Pretty much everybody is a pedestrian. Once you park your car, you become a pedestrian, and at some point you’re crossing a street or an intersection.”

One factor Dahl said was a huge factor in pedestrian deaths was impairment by those who are on foot.

“Studies have shown about half of all pedestrian deaths involve impairment,” Dahl said. “Just like driving, if you are sober when you are walking around on the streets, there’s a way better chance you’ll be fine.”

Overall, pedestrians being involved in fatal accidents is happening at the same rate as motorcycles being involved, with 18 logged by WSDOT since the start of 2010.

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“I’m actually surprised there aren’t more motorcycle deaths,” Dahl said. “It’s just such a vulnerable mode of transportation.”

Which goes hand-in-hand with what Dahl called the “Rule of Lugnuts,” referring to the higher probability of death when a commercial truck is involved. WSDOT data showed heavy trucks are involved in only 11.4 percent of Whatcom’s fatal crashes (13 of 114).

“The thing to remember with all of this is that there are good drivers and bad drivers in every demographic you can think of,” Dahl said. “We don’t want to say that just because you’re a young driver you’re going to be a bad driver or just because you check these boxes you’re going to be a good driver. We all need to get better.”

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David Rasbach: 360-715-2271.
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